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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2791

Is blood a substitute for water in Mavil Aru?

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Who owns the waters of the Mavil Aru dam in the Trincomalee district that feed 15,000 families? Is it the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL)? Or is it the Tamil Tigers?

In closing the dam on July 20 the Tamil Tigers acted as if they were sole proprietors of the water streaming down the Mavil Aru. But there is no proprietorial right for anyone to claim the waters as their own and to dispense it according to their whims and fancies. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tamil Tigers has legal or moral right to close the sluice gates. They have the right only to keep the gates open not to close it, because the water belongs to the people who are dependent on it. Whoever is in charge of the sluice gates can act only as the trustees of this life-giving resource. No one has the right to deny the people this primary source of survival.

Apart from it being a war crime and crime against humanity it is the height of arrogance for the Tamil Tigers to assume that they alone can dictate the opening and the closing of the sluice gates. Without a leg to stand on the Tamil Tigers have been trotting out various excuses for their arbitrary act.

First they said that the closing of the sluice gates was the “the people’s response” to the GoSL’s failure to provide water to another area where they do not have the benefit of the water flowing from Mavil Aru. Assuming that the “the people” had acted collectively (there is no evidence for this) what should have been the response of the Tamil Tigers? If their intention was to teach a lesson to the GoSL why should they deny water to the people downstream? Invariably, it is the innocent people who are made to pay the price of the vindictive actions of the Tamil Tiger to teach the GoSL lessons Cutting off water to 15,000 downstream because some other segment has no access to water does not solve the problem. It merely increases the misery by another 15,000 victims. So do two wrongs add up to one right?

In any case, using “the people” as a shield to cover up their illegal, and even inhuman deeds, has been the common tactic of the Tamil Tigers. This excuse of the Tamil people taking the law into their hands in the Tiger-controlled area is a fiction that cannot be swallowed even if you are supplied with a lorry load of salt.

As Velupillai Prabhakaran knows very well, the Tamils have the freedom to act independently only when they cross over to the “Sinhala-dominated area”. All in all, this excuse is as perverse as saying that if one segment of the people does not have water then all communities should not have water!

Second, the Tigers stated that this was their response to the EU banning them. Must the people living down stream Mavil Aru – mostly Tamils - suffer because the Tamil Tigers have been hit on the head by the international community? The act of closing the sluice gates and the excuses put out by the Tamil Tigers question the sanity of the one-man regime in the Vanni. Clearly, the Tigers have run out of valid or sensible arguments to back up their tactics and politics. They have been striking desperately in all directions hoping that the war postponed by their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, due to the tsunami will come. And it has come at last (though in a limited fashion so far) in Mavil Aru.

Closing of the sluice gate is also an exercise to pressure and test the nerves of the international community and the Sri Lankan government. Tigers want to see how far they can go once again with this old tactic. What is seen in Mavil Aru is the same old pattern: the Tamil Tigers trigger the incidents that escalate violence for Solheim to rush in and pressure the GoSL to give in. The war-weary people are tired of Solheim’s charade. The setting is perfect for him to either deliver – at least some water if he can’t deliver peace -- or butt out and stay out.

The most likely scenario is for Solheim to go round blaming the GoSL as he has done in the past. The vacuum left by Norway has to be filled by the GoSL. The GoSL has the moral, legal and political right to defend the right of any community to access water from whatever source it flows. A government that does not defend the people’s right to access available water forfeits the right to be in power or to govern. GoSL is also right in rejecting the Norwegian call to withdraw to the positions held by the warring parties at the time of Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002. Did Norway withdraw from Afghanistan when an unarmed Afghan mob protested and threw stones at its camp? On the contrary, the Norwegian camp commander called in the jets to fly over and ordered his ground forces to open fired at the demonstrating civilians killing three and injuring many more. Furthermore, will Norway allow its Sami minority to deny the supply of water to the Norwegians?

Misguided Norway is as irrational as the Tamil Tigers in asking the GoSL to withdraw without defending the right of all communities to have access to water. Norway has a consistent record of failing to handle human rights and sensitive issues that affect all communities. Norway has survived in the peace process only by extracting the maximum from the GoSL. After backing the Tamil Tigers all the way Solheim has yet to get something substantial to uphold even his own CFA. His own Nordic Truce Monitors say that 95% of the violations have been committed by the Tamil Tigers.

Since Norway cannot be expected to act fairly, or even according to norms of international humanitarian laws, it is the moral and the political duty of the GoSL to defend the basic principle of making water freely available through the existing sources to all those who need it. Any other option would be tantamount to (1) a gross betrayal of the people who are dependent on the water for their survival and (2) a total surrender to the forces that have had no qualms in using basic necessities as a weapon to dictate political terms.

Norway needs to be reminded that the GoSL has been commended by a former under-secretary of the UNHCR as the only government that has provided essential commodities to a rebel-held territory. The Peace Secretariat recently published statistics which established incontrovertibly that it is the funding provided by “the Sinhala-dominated government” that sustains the educational, health, social and other amenities of all the Tamils living in the north and east. Of course, the Vanni one-man regime maintains an efficient killing machine. That doesn’t make it state.

One of the primary functions of any civilized state is to be a care-giver. Unlike “the Sinhala-dominated government” that gives all the care that it can afford to the Tamils of the north and the east the first Tamil-dominated administration provides mainly an overabundance of fear and terror to keep the Tamils under its authoritarian grip. Norway and the NGOs are happy to go along with this regime in the name of a peace that is nowhere in sight. Since peace is still far away it is the duty of the “Sinhala-dominated state” to provide the Tamils of the north and the east their basic essentials like food, schooling from kindergarten to the university, hospitals, doctors, nurses and water, wherever it is available. The commendable record of the “Sinhala-dominated government” is that it has not withdrawn any of these essentials to the people of the north and the east, partly because they are citizens of the state and partly because they are fellow-human beings who deserve respect and humane treatment.

So should this government, under the pressures of failed peace-facilitators like Erik Solheim, now deprive a segment of the people of the east their basic supply of water? Conversely, would Norway, the international community and the NGOs permit the GoSL to stop the flow of medicine to the people of the north and the east? They have the absolute right to protest as forcefully as they can if such a crime is committed by the GoSL. But why is Erik Solheim, the biggest failure in the peace industry, pressuring the GoSL to withdraw and let his friends in the Vanni hierarchy dictate the terms of water supply? As a human being – leave alone his role as a peace facilitator – isn’t it his moral duty to put pressure on the Tamil Tigers to open the sluice gates before asking the GoSL to give in to the unjustifiable demands of his allies in the north?

The irony is that the Tamil Tigers, who claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamils and collect millions from illegal taxes at home and funds from abroad, have never provided a single of the essential amenities to the Tamils of the north and east to keep their body and soul together. If “the Sinhala-dominated government” withdraws the billions poured into the welfare of the Tamils the Vanni administration will collapse overnight. It is “the Sinhala-dominated government” that constructed and maintained the Mavil Aru for the benefit of all communities on either side of its banks. It is their duty to keep the sluice gates open for the benefit of the people. It is hardly possible that there are Lutheran principles – the official religion of Norwegian government -- which can justify the denial of water to any human being. If there is it is time for Solheim to let the people of Mavil Aru know how Lutheranism would tackle the denial of water to any creature.

The international community, if it has sincere intentions of contributing to their proclaimed humanitarian values, is legally and morally obliged to assist the GoSL in restoring water to the people affected in Mavil Aru area. The issue is not to choose between water and peace, though it must be admitted that both are equally vital. But if water is used to sabotage peace then peace can wait as it has waited all this while because the tortuous and elusive path to peace is not going quench the thirst of the people or the parched land.

Restoring the flow of water should be given priority because it is of urgent and paramount importance for sheer survival. There are no prizes for giving into the demands of Solheim. People will neither get peace nor water. The concessions he has extracted in the name of peace have failed to preserve even his vaunted CFA.

What guarantee can he give to assure that the withdrawal of GoSL forces will bring even the faintest hope for peace or water?

There is more credence in the argument of the government defence spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella who said: "The government is not conducting a military operation but a humanitarian one.” He added: "However, if the LTTE were to open the gates on its own, the operations will stop." The primary task of Solheim is to ask the Tamil Tigers to open the sluice gate. It is moral. It is in keeping with humanitarian principles. It s pragmatic. And it is simple.

Norway’s failure as a peace facilitator stems from its lack of principles. It has mistaken expediency and appeasement for principles. Norway, like all the NGO interventionists, assume that siding with the Tamil Tigers, ignoring the moral fundamentals, could win the hearts and minds of the Tamil Tigers and influence them to come to the negotiating table. But this strategy failed because it was not based on fairness, justness or morality.

To date Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Kumar Rupesinghe, Civil Rights Movement, MARGA, Free Media Movement and the other usual suspects haunting the failed political underworld of bogus theories have soft-pedaled this issue. Predictably, they are deaf and dumb when it comes to moral issues affecting the people. Morality becomes a big issue only when their mobs are affected. But morality does not belong to one side alone. Like water it belongs to all humanity.

And of all segments of humanity Tigers are the least human. Every act of the Tamil Tigers confirms that they are sinking deeper into the inhuman pit with no hope of ever coming out of it.

Amidst all this humbuggery, the voice of the TULF leader V. Anandasangaree rings true because he has shed partisanship and spoken with moral courage on behalf of the victims of Tamil Tiger extremism. He has urged the Tamil community in Sri Lanka to demand from the LTTE that it immediately opens the Mavil Aru sluice gates to enable the poor peasants to salvage their crops and restore drinking water 15,000 families.

Is this too much to ask? If the Tamils wants justice what right have they to impose injustices on others, particularly their own kith and kin?

In a way the folk tale of God Kataragma illustrates, the plight of the Tamils. This tale recalls the time when God Kataragama came down in disguise as a beggar to test the moral character of the people of Sri Lanka. He went first to the Sinhala people and when he asked for some water to quench his thirst the Sinhala man invited him into his house and climbed the nearest coconut tree from which he plucked a kurumba (young coconut) and offered it to him graciously. For this act of kindness God Kataragama blessed the Sinhala man.

But when God Kataragama went to Jaffna and asked for some water he was forbidden to go anywhere near the well. He was even thrown out of the compound fearing that "the beggar" would pollute the sacred premises of the Jaffna man. The angry God cursed the Tamil man and this, according to this legend, explains why the Tamil man pays the most painful penance to God Kataragama.

Mavil Aru illustrates that what happened to God Kataragama continues to happen to this day, leaving no valid reason for God Kataragama to lift his original curse?

Anandasangaree summed up the heartless experience of God Kataragama when he said last week: "Acts of this nature bring disgrace to a community that had a good reputation all over the world. Tamils have lost more than what they have achieved to the LTTE's atrocious activities."

"Denying to 30,000 acres of paddy crops much needed water at this most crucial period when their crops are maturing and allowing the crops to perish amounts to inhumanly depriving 15,000 families of their livelihood and drinking water," he said.

He said: "By their cruel act the LTTE had not gained anything other than earning the displeasure of the international community and bringing disgrace to the Tamil community."

Mavil Aru brings back memories of what Marie Antoinette is supposed to have told the hungry French victims of the oppressive ancien regime: “If the people don’t have bread why don’t they eat cake”? In a similar vein, Velupillai Ptabakaran is informing the thirsty people of the east: “If you don’t have water why don’t you drink the blood flowing down the Mavil Aru”?

- Asian Tribune -

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