It’s over. Asia’s longest running civil war has ended. After a vicious offensive by the Sri Lankan government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have laid down their weapons. This is a long-sought end to a savage and bloody conflict. The test now is whether the Sri Lankan government will address the grievances that led the Tamils to take up arms. Will this minority be welcomed as an equal member of Sri Lankan society?
Sri Lanka, an island nation located off the southern tip of India, is a divided society. The Sinhalese majority is Buddhist and constitutes nearly three-quarters of the country’s 20 million people. Tamils are Hindu and Christian, account for about 15 percent of the population and live in the north and east of the country. The Tamils have long complained of discrimination. Frustrations boiled over in 1983, with the launch of a fight for independence and the establishment of a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
That fight endured for 26 years and claimed over 80,000 lives. It was an especially bloody conflict: The Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE is often known, pioneered the use of suicide bombings, a tactic that took the life of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when Tamil leaders took offense at his intervention in the conflict. The Sri Lankan government responded to regular attacks against it with the often-indiscriminate use of its own weapons. The Tigers’ propensity to use civilians as human shields and to see the slaughter of Tamil civilians as a propaganda victory lengthened the casualty lists.
The conflict turned a corner with the election of Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as president of Sri Lanka three years ago. The Tigers ended a ceasefire with attacks on the new government, which responded with a single-minded determination to end the civil war. That effort was facilitated by two other factors. The global fight against terror strained the Tigers’ ability to raise money from the Tamil diaspora, which had been one of the pillars of its support, and a split among the Tigers themselves resulted in the defection of a substantial faction, which weakened the cause and gave the government insight into how the Tigers operated and their weaknesses.
A sustained military offensive broke through the Tigers’ lines last year. The group, which had once operated a shadow state that was virtually independent, was forced to retreat to an ever-shrinking area. The rebels took civilians with them. Government forces claimed they were being used as human shields; the rebels countered that the government was attacking blindly, indifferent to the cost. The truth is hard to tell since the government has forbidden journalists from entering the war zone and the Tigers are quick to distort or misrepresent the situation. Anecdotal reports appear to support the veracity of both allegations.
The United Nations estimates about 8,000 civilians were killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the beginning of the year. The human toll of the most recent offensive is not known but is sure to be high. More than 200,000 have been displaced by the conflict. When the rebels laid down their arms, their announcement declared “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.” Others argue that loss of the civilian hostages forced the Tigers’ hand.
Even if the Sri Lankan government declares victory, fighting could continue. Sri Lankan forces claim to have killed Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the head of the Tigers who masterminded the Tiger strategy. However, there are others who share Mr. Prabhakaran’s fanatical devotion to the Tamil cause. They are unlikely to ever give up the fight although they can be isolated and their influence reduced. That requires Mr. Rajapaksa to reach out to the Tamil minority and truly respond to their complaints. That means turning his back on the virulent Sinhalese nationalism that runs through Sri Lankan politics and has provided a platform for his own administration. An equitable power-sharing agreement that meets the needs of 15 percent of the Sri Lankan population is the only way to truly end the civil war that has blighted his country. Effective outreach will ensure that the remaining Tamil terrorists do not find sympathizers and remain a criminal band rather than a credible and attractive political force.
As a first step, the government — and Sri Lanka’s friends, Japan most notably among them — must take concrete action to end what the Red Cross calls “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.” Nearly a quarter of a million people have been displaced by the recent fighting. Concerted efforts to alleviate their suffering and to put their lives back on track will show the Tamil people that the war is truly over and that they, and their country, have entered a new era.
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