In Sri Lanka, peace talks ride on a highway

The A-9 connects government and rebel territory. The government closed it Aug. 12 due to fighting.

When the Sri Lankan government reopened the A-9 highway as part of a 2002 cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lankans dubbed it the "road to peace." For many, the reopening of the A-9, which connects the Tamil-dominated northern Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the island nation, symbolized a revitalized peace dialogue between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the Sri Lankan government.

But when the highway was closed again on Aug. 12, it marked a return to the nearly two decades of violent impasse. The A-9 highway has once again become the main prize in a face-off that threatens to plunge Sri Lanka into yet another full-blown civil war.

"The situation is getting worse," says Sarojini Charles, an ethnic Tamil government officer posted to the frontier town of Vavuniya, the last town on the A-9 before it enters a long swath of rebel-held territory. The highway passes back into government control at Muhamalai, shortly before entering the Jaffna peninsula. Ms. Charles thinks it's unlikely the A-9 will be reopened soon.

Since fighting started again on Aug. 11, the border crossing at Muhamalai has become an intense battlefield between Sri Lankan troops and the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lankan Tamils consider Jaffna their historical homeland.

Closing the road to peace

When the Tamil Tigers made reopening the A-9 highway a condition for peace at last month's talks in Geneva, the two sides met with failure once again. The government has since offered to consider opening alternative routes to Jaffna, but the Tigers say they won't accept that.

"It's not for the LTTE," argues Seevarasiah Puleevadan, an official with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil's militia. "It's for the 600,000 people stranded in Jaffna without access to the land route to other parts of the island."

The government, Charles says, closed the highway to prevent the Tamil Tigers from collecting "taxes" on passengers and goods. The Tigers made as much as $2.8 million per month on unofficial tolls, according to the government, which it says feeds the Tigers' war kitty.

Meanwhile, Jaffna residents say they paid less to pass through the Tiger tolls on the A-9 than what they now pay to take the government's lengthy detour.

"Bus fare was only Rs. 150 [US$1.50]" before the A-9 was closed, says Jaffna resident Shri Nathan. "Passengers didn't have to pay anything. Only business people did."

Now passengers pay Rs. 300 [US$3] for the bus ride from Mannar or Vavuniya to Trincomalee and an additional Rs. 1500 [US$15] for the sea passage from Trincomalee to Jaffna.

"It takes three days for travel. It will be good if they open the A-9," says Suhasini Vickramasurya, a high school student. "We used to be able to go from Vavuniya to Jaffna in four hours."

The Tamil Tigers say the road closure is keeping essential food and medical supplies from reaching the peninsula.

But the rebels acknowledge having turned down offers from both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help transport provisions by sea. They also opposed establishing a supply route from the Indian coast. As it stands, the government's food shipments to Jaffna are insufficient to meet the daily needs of its 600,000 residents.

"The food situation is very bad," says Mr. Puleedevan. "People have started to starve. That's why we think the A-9 should be opened."

President Mahinda Rajapakse said earlier this week that he would open the A-9 to allow one food convoy pass through. Rebels met the announcement with skepticism.

"We think it's a good step, but it's not going to address the urgent needs of the people," says Puleedevan. The LTTE, he says, has yet to receive confirmation from either the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the Nordic group overseeing the tattered cease-fire, or the International Committee for the Red Cross, which administers border crossings.

A long journey home

With the highway closed, Jaffna residents stranded in mainland Sri Lanka are now the responsibility of local governments near the rebel border. In the northwestern district of Mannar, 655 Jaffna residents wait in government welfare centers to return home this weekend.

"Among the 655, we're going to send 300 on Saturday for the Sunday ship," says Stanley de Nal, a government officer in Mannar. Mannar is busing Jaffna residents to the eastern port town of Trincomalee, where they will board a private passenger ship bound for the Jaffna peninsula.

Charles, who works with Ms. Stanley, sent the last batch of stranded residents in Vavuniya to Trincomalee on Tuesday. Before that, hundreds of Jaffna residents camped out in front of her office each morning. Some had been selling their jewelry and personal belongings to pay for food and board, says Charles.

"We requested the government to please send them from Vavuniya because we were having a lot of problems," she says. Her office was "unable to look after them, unable to feed them. We had no funds for any facilities," she says.

The highway closure kept Devanayakam Devanand, a father of two from Jaffna, from returning home for months. He is angry that civilians are being made to suffer. "It's a military confrontation, not a civilian confrontation," he says. "The A-9 is a civilian road, not a military road."

The ferry has also presented travelers with security challenges. One Sri Lankan passenger ferry was caught in the middle of a sea battle between the Navy and the Tamil Tigers several days ago.

The pro-Tiger Tamilnet website claims that the vessel was carrying 300 troops and Army munitions – a claim the government denies. It says the Tigers attacked to sway Sri Lankan popular opinion toward reopening the highway.

"They wanted to show that the sea lines are not safe, so open the A-9," says one official.

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