On the Highway of Peace and Amity

By Jehan Perera

For a two and half year period during 1997-99 the former government tried to re-open the A-9 highway that connects the last government held town of Vavuniya in the south with the city of Jaffna in the north. The military operation conducted under the name of Jayasikuru was one of the longest military offensives in modern history. Despite periodic announcements by government leaders that a percentage of the military operation had been successfully concluded, going upto 96 percent by mid-1998, the end came unexpectedly. In a matter of five days at the close of 1999 the LTTE re-took virtually the whole of the territory secured at great cost by the Sri Lankan army. In addition, they launched a counter-offensive that took them to the very outskirts of Jaffna.

During the years of operation Jayasikuru the A-9 highway came to be known as the “highway of death”. The signs of distruction are there to be seen everywhere on the road – in the burnt out hulks of military vehicles, in rusty barbed wire that once secured military camps, in the gutted and shell pocked buildings of people, schools and commercial establishments and in the stumps of thousands of coconut and palmyrah palms whose crowns were shorn of by artillery shells.

The re-opening of the A-9 highway has been one of the visible accomplishments of the ceasefire agreement signed by the government and LTTE. Several thousands of Sri Lankan and LTTE soldiers lost their lives in the attempt to control the road. But it was finally re-opened without a single life being lost and is now in the process of being repaired. In some places by the side of the road are mounds of red gravel to be used in repairing it. Sections are being newly tarred. Despite bumps the road is generally motorable.

According to a senior army officer commanding one of the few checkpoint on the road about a thousand vehicles are now using the road every day. He had a positive assessment of the ceasefire agreement saying, “Today is better than yesterday, and is better than tomorrow would have been” comparing the pre-ceasefire period with the present. When asked about the army’s relationship with the LTTE he said that neither side was provoking the other. When in government controlled areas the LTTE cadre would follow the regulations imposed by the ceasefire agreement.

People to People

The re-opening of the highway has been a boon to Buddhists from the south who are able to go on pilgrimages to the ancient Buddhist temples in the Jaffna peninsula. Several buses with pilgrims of all ages could be seen stopped at the checkpoints. It appeared that the longer delays were at the army checkpoints, which needs to be addressed, to make the journey a less time consuming one.

Despite the massive, shocking and sobering destruction of wealth and property that is so visible, the A-9 highway has become one of peace and amity today. Indeed, at one of the main army checkpoints are painted sign boards welcoming people to the A-9 highway of peace and amity. Children living by the side of the road wave at passing vehicles. Perhaps to children the past matters less than the present, and they are joyful that in the present there are new faces, new dresses and new vehicles. But the warm greeting is not only limited to children.

It is not only children who demonstrated warmth to visitors from afar. In the evening after reaching Pandertharippu which is about 17km away from Jaffna city, we went to the communication centre in the village to make telephone calls to Colombo. The communication centre was located in a small bakery outlet and consisted of only a single telephone. While waiting for a connection which took about 10-15 minutes for each telephone call, we decided to taste some of the ‘home made’ biscuits. But when we asked how much they cost, to pay for them, the owner declined. They were for free, he said. He only charged us Rs. 50 for three phone calls to Colombo even though he had to spend over half an hour trying to get us the connections. Clearly the people of Jaffna are happy to be connected to the larger world of non-military Sri Lanka from which they were disconnected for the past 15 years.

Problems Ahead

But the terms on which the north-south connection will be made remains to be negotiated. It is not likely to be easy and will not be done either by those Buddhist pilgrims or by the Pandertharippu shop owners. Some of the civic leaders in Jaffna were very open and firm in their conviction that the borders of Tamil Eelam and its legalization are all that remain to be negotiated. After the pulverization of their cities, towns and villages they do not wish to have anything to do with the Sri Lank state under whose governments such destruction occurred.

On the other hand is the aspiration of the Sinhalese, whose sense of identity is based on the consciousness of an undivided island that was called ‘Dhammadipa’ in the past, and to which those busloads of Buddhist pilgrims were paying homage with their arduous journey. And also the aspirations of the Muslims who were expelled from Jaffna without even being allowed to take their movable possessions with them. They were expelled by a Tamil nationalism that could see no more than its own interests and aspirations. Perhaps mirroring these seemingly irreconcilable aspirations, in certain parts of Jaffna the army was to be seen cutting down coconut trees to prepare new bunkers and to strengthen old ones.

The future political negotiations, when they come, are bound to be difficult. The struggle for power and there are also other powerful forces involved, such as international actors. The recent agreement regarding the leasing out of the Trincomalee oil tanks to India is one example. The defence agreement to be signed with the United States is another. The implication of all these will most probably go beyond the self-determination of all Sri Lankans, not only the Tamils.

6 June 2002