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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The 30-year-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka may well end this year. Thousands of people have been killed, and political leaders, including India’s young and charismatic Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated in the war between majority Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and the largely Christian Tamils.

The Tamils, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s Vellupillai Prabhakaran, have demanded a separate home in the north and east of the island nation. This now seems like a dream gone sour. The fall of Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ political and administrative headquarters, to the forces of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government last week is seen as a decisive turn.

Cynics may point out that Kilinochchi fell before and was recaptured by the Tigers in 1998, but the situation on the ground is quite different today from what it was a decade ago. There has been an almost historic change in Colombo’s approach to the strife. Government troops are fully equipped and right on top of rebel attacks. For the first time, the army, navy and air force are working together to overcome hostile terrain (where the Tigers had used guerrilla tactics to their advantage), monsoon conditions and man-made obstacles.

Rajapaksa appears driven to getting the Tigers to surrender unconditionally. The government’s previous attempts were largely focused on forcing Prabhakaran to the discussion table.

Foolishly, Prabhakaran threw away all those chances, arrogantly believing in his own invincibility while waging an ethically scandalous war. He used very young children as soldiers, pushing them to face well-trained Sri Lankan forces armed with far more sophisticated weapons. He blackmailed thousands of Tamils into total submission, often using them as shields to face the fire and fury of a desperate army that had suffered near-crippling losses.

The Tigers are again expected to use Tamils as human shields once they advance against government troops near Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass in an effort to open the A9 highway connecting the south with northern Jaffna, the cultural capital of the Tamils taken over by Colombo in 1995.

Although that was a terrible blow for the Tigers, the takeover of Kilinochchi is the worst possible hit against Prabhakaran, for the town was not only a political symbol but also the last bastion before the jungles of Mullaitivu. It is there that Prabhakaran and his men are said to be holed up.

Though Kilinochchi was the Tigers’ political, police and judicial headquarters, they might have abandoned it as a tactical move to save their best fighters for the defense of Mullaitivu. The fight for this last post could be the bloodiest yet.

The victory at Kilinochchi should not be viewed as one by the South over the North, or as one by the Sinhalese over the Tamils. Rajapaksa himself has warned his countrymen against this and has promised the minority group equal rights and opportunities.

Still, there are signs to the contrary. While Colombo was celebrating its triumph last week, Tamils in the north and in the east were told to register with the police for the third time in a year. Power may not devolve to Tamils as they have been assured — even to the limited extent envisaged in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.

It must be argued that no military win can ever be meaningful without a political solution to the problem that provoked the armed struggle in the first place.

Nobody can deny that the Tamils faced prejudice, inequality and humiliation at the hands of the Sinhalese, including some monks with political authority, whose Buddhist beliefs surprisingly did not stop them from inflicting cruelty in this ethnic crisis.

Nor can Prabhakaran’s sadistic ways be condoned. He cared little about the means of success. He pushed his idea of a just end, sacrificing his best people in battle, coldbloodedly murdering dissenters, forcing very young children to bite the bullet, and taking pride in pioneering the deployment of suicide bombers. The cyanide pill that so many Tigers took to escape torture and incarceration became almost synonymous with Prabhakaran’s warped methods of waging war.

For his part, Rajapaksa must understand that he must rise above feelings of malice and vengeance, for he presides over a Sri Lanka that is home for Sinhalese as much as for Tamils.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based freelance journalist.

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