Sunday, May 17, 2009


President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has claimed victory in the island nation's twenty-six year civil war as rebel held territory has rapidly shrunk, senior figures in the separatist Tamil Tiger movement, including leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, are rumored to be dead, a spate of suicides has depleted Tiger fighters, and the group has acknowledged its defeat, offering a cease fire. As much as a military solution to the conflict is possible the Sri Lankan government has won, militarily the rebels are crushed. However, the war which has claimed 80,000 lives has its roots in a political, and not a military, conflict.

The future of Sri Lanka after the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers will hold lessons for the resolution of other conflicts, and it will rebuke the theories of those who believe that force is all that is needed in resolving conflict. The conditions that allowed for the Tigers to emerge, Sihnalese chauvinism and domination have not been ended with the defeat of the rebel group and if they are not ended there will be new Tigers. Perhaps they will be called by a different name, perhaps they will embrace a different ideology, perhaps they will embrace different tactics, perhaps they will not emerge immediately, but eventually there will be either a reconstituted resurgent LTTE or a new group. With the war ended the government has an opportunity to address those issues. The government no longer has an excuse to spurn moderate Tamil groups such as the Tamil National Alliance whose members it has previously assasinated.

If the government reaches out to reconcile with its Tamil minority and allay the ethnic nationalism of both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities then the island might be able to come together and move forward. But if nothing is changed from the time of the civil war when the government bombed hospitals and relentlessly killed civilians, if the government continues to treat the Tamil population as its enemy they will never cease to be an enemy. If Tamils are not brought into the government to have their grievances redressed the island will remain divided and the inevitability of large scale violence will persist. The Tamils will not be in a position to wage an all out war again for some time, but if their disillusionment with their situation continues it is highly likely some of them will be driven to extremism and also massive terrorism, something which will prove difficult for the state to defeat militarily.

Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads; the leaders of its minority communities and the government can embrace reconciliation and move down the difficult path towards unity together, or they can cling to their ethnic nationalism and regress back into civil war and strife, together. Whatever path they chose they will chose together and whatever fate comes to the island will come to all of its people, Sinhalese as well as Tamil. The Western nations need to do what they can to encourage reconciliation, but they also need to take note of what happens in the Indian Ocean island in the coming years and understand that the lessons of Sri Lanka will be equally applicable to their own conflicts.

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