The demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), might give a moment of passing joy to the Sinhalese, chanting in the streets of Colombo at the quashing of “terrorism” on the island, but such relief will be short lived. Images have been released showing the Tamil leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, slain as he was trying to flee, though the material can’t, as yet, be verified. This is, however, academic. The pro-Tiger website TamilNet has come out with the words from senior rebel spokesman Selvarajah Pathmanathan: “We have decided to silence our guns.”
It has come as something of a shock. Three years ago, the Tigers controlled a little less than six thousand square miles of Sri Lanka to the north and east. In 2002, there was even a ceasefire with the opening of the Jaffna peninsula. President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed to end the stalemate, forcing the Tigers into a last stand soon after the capture of the de facto capital, Kilinochchi.
The ethnic troubles in that tragic country are long, and they go beyond the 26 years of conflict and 100 thousand deaths. Certainly, till the Tigers manifested themselves, the cause of the Tamils was a dire one. With the coming to power after independence in 1948 of Sinhalese-led governments, positions once favoured by Tamils were rapidly snapped up. The seeds for a populist, chauvinist reaction were sown.
Dressing up political labels under titles such as “terrorism” and registering them on international “lists” is useful to an end, but remains cosmetic. Yes, bombing civilian targets in a guerilla war and murdering political officials (amongst them, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa), amounts to terrorism. The use of female and child warriors may also be highly questionable. The Tigers were certainly adept at disseminating fear, using suicide bombers long before warriors of fundamentalist Islam decided to employ it. Tactics employed against the Tamil population are then justified as the necessary antidote.
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This has, effectively, been a war of extermination. The final phases of the conflict, done with a relentless brutality, have shown what is at stake. Dissent has been quashed in a heavily militarized state; extra-judicial killings and abductions against the Tamil population, frequent. The UN has estimated that anywhere up to 7,000 civilians have been killed and a further 16,700 wounded since the start of this year. A quarter of a million refugees have been created as a result of the final stages of conflict and humanitarian agencies barred. The wire-ringed refugee camps have become centers of squalor.
Having poured money and material into the campaign to win the war, the government will now have to keep the peace. Vengeance on the Tamil population, no doubt tempting for the Sinhalese representatives, will have to be curtailed. The idea of Eelam took firm root in Tamil identity, however distasteful their techniques might have been. Once the celebratory kissing and the crackers stop, hard decisions will have to be made. To cope with an estranged Tamil population, Sri Lanka must itself be reconstituted and reformed, possibly as a multinational state. Power may have to be shared, and constitutional reforms passed. Till that is done, peace will simply remain chimerical.