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Editorial


A 9: Humanitarian and security concerns

Geneva II yielded a nice line: peace talks break down on the A-9 highway.  No one can dispute that there is a serious humanitarian crisis before us, especially in the North and East. 
The LTTE has refused to consider alternatives routes to deliver essential supplies to Jaffna and this fact should not be lost on the Co-Chairs when they meet in Washington tomorrow. The problem, however, is that while terrorists can deny anything and everything to populations undergoing severe depravation, a government cannot without compromising its claim to be representing all citizens and that it is committed to taking care of basic needs as per the social contract. 
Today NGOs and other self-labelled ‘civil society’ groups who were strangely very silent in all the years that the LTTE shut down the A-9 have suddenly discovered a conscience about this closure effecting adversely the people of Jaffna. They have their agendas, their outcome-preferences, and, as some argue, even a perverse need to compromise the strength of the state not to mention territorial integrity and sovereignty.  Still, the government cannot reference any of these things when it comes to delivering basic needs to sustain life (in the very least) to the people, wherever they live, whatever they do and regardless of their identity in terms of caste, ethnicity, religion etc may be. 
The Co-Chairs are meeting tomorrow and they are bound to talk about the situation in the country, the prospects for negotiation, donor-coordination, the SLFP-UNP MoU, India’s role and the humanitarian crisis and how the A-9 figures in all this.  It is possible that conditions may be imposed on the government which may even include the threat of aid-freeze.  It will not be lost on the Co-Chairs that all avenues need to be explored in terms of getting the government to arrest the deteriorating law and order situation and to get its act together on the humanitarian front before considering such action. Such a move would in effect give parity of status to a government and a terrorist organization. This can only make things worse.  Not to mention of course setting a horrendous precedent and severely compromising the growing move world-wide towards zero-tolerance of terrorism.
Opening the A-9 would in all probability dominate the discussion because it is Norway’s baby. The government’s position has been that opening the A-9 constitutes a security risk.  This argument is not entirely unsupported by the available evidence. Human beings, however, cannot and should not be asked to wait on resolution, whether militarily or through negotiations. 
No one in his/her right mind, least of all the Co-Chairs, would suggest an unconditional opening up or the A-9.  It is no secret that the LTTE imposed ‘taxes’ on everything that went along the A-9 and that the bulk of this money went to arms procurement. The government can insist on conditions because just as the humanitarian concerns of the people of Jaffna need to be addressed, so too the security of all citizens, in Jaffna and other places, in the North and the East and in other parts of the country.  For the record, just yesterday a claymore mine was detonated on the A-9 killing four soldiers and injuring 15 civilians.  ‘No blank cheques to terrorists’ therefore is a legitimate demand. 
There is an impasse, agreed.  Is there a way out? Perhaps.  The Co-Chairs can insist that the A-9 be opened with the caveat that there will be zero-taxation and no pilfering.  Practical mechanisms to ensure this can be worked out. The government can, and should, insist that the first violation by the LTTE will result in the A-9 being closed again, thereby calling Prabhakaran’s ‘humanitarian’ bluff. 
These are not easy times. The space for humanitarian work is directly correlated to the degree of threat to national security involved.  The government has to get its act together in terms of law and order but no government, however well-meaning it may be, can make miracles happen. The Co-Chairs will no doubt avail themselves of the relevant pragmatism.  The ball, as it often is, is in Prabhakaran’s court, one observes.  He could stop beating around the bush and get down to substantive issues. He can consider walking a road called Democratization.  Or confirm to the world that he is not interested in the well-being of anyone, least of all the Tamil people.  
As for the Co-Chairs, let us appreciate that the A-9 they might choose to walk is not free of booby traps.

***

Budget? Yes, we’ve heard that word before…

Time was when the annual budget was eagerly anticipated, read carefully, debated hotly and critically analysed.  Not any more.  A budget is many things: a statement of policy, a development plan, and an indication of what kind of goodies or belt-tightening to expect, a set of reasonable hopes or fears.  
Not anymore.
Budgets are passed, amended and key elements abandoned altogether.  They come as 5-year plans and, as in this budget, 10-year plans. Government change, policies change and strategies debated and accepted are duly trashed.
More than all this, the general public’s manifest apathy regarding budgets stems from the fact that people are not only sick and tired of politicians, but have learnt to treat them with a healthy mistrust. ‘Words’ and ‘wordy’: these are what politicians are about.  We read manifestoes, elect, see manifestoes and mandates distorted and re-interpreted and have no recourse to recalling from office those who lied to us. 
What the budget will or will not do, frankly, is resident in the realm of conjecture because there will always be ‘exigencies’.  There will be, also (going by recent history) pilfering of the Treasury. There will be wastage.  And there seems to be no moves towards putting in place effective mechanisms to combat these and other ‘leakages’. 
This budget is being marketed as a harbinger of ‘development’ with fidelity to social, cultural and political realities and one where ‘the local’ has not been foot-noted.   The proof, as they, say, is in the eating.  Life gives the lie to the cooking of numbers, sooner or later.  It will be difficult to ask people to keep an open mind, but there is little else that the people can do anyway.  Minds close when stomachs remain empty.  Let us hope it will not come to that.