How to keep the Tigers sleeping?

2010-01-08 00:00

FIRST, the good news. Sri Lanka’s government, whose 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended in total victory last May, is keeping its promise to let all of the 300 000 Tamil civilians who were captured in the final battle go home again. Not only that, but it is going to hold a free election this month — so free that the ruling party might even lose it.

The bad news is that it does not much matter who wins that election. Both the incumbent and the challenger are committed Sinhalese nationalists whose policies towards the Tamil minority militate against any reconciliation between the two groups. Tamils are less than a fifth of the population, so if tough treatment is enough to keep them quiet, then Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future — but repression has not worked in the past.

It’s easy to understand why the government, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, insisted on a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers, whose insurgency had caused 70 000 deaths over the years. There had been cease-fires and peace talks over the years, but the Tigers never really abandoned their goal of total independence for the Tamil-majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That was utterly unacceptable to the Sinhala-speaking majority, so the war was bound to end in a last stand by the Tigers sooner or later. They could have carried on with suicide bombings and assassinations forever, but their territorial ambitions drove them to seize and hold ground with a more or less conventional military force. (They even had a navy and an air force of sorts.) That made them vulnerable to military defeat.

All it took to make that happen was a government willing to devote all the resources of the state to building an army able to defeat the Tigers in stand-up battle, and be tough enough to refuse all negotiations until the enemy was completely destroyed. The Rajapaksa provided that government.

All the well-meaning foreign pleas last May for a cease-fire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped with the Tigers were quite rightly ignored by the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers always made sure that they had lots of innocent civilians around when they fought. The civilians absorbed a lot of the enemy fire and their deaths served to radicalise other Tamils. Cease-fires to protect civilians had frequently allowed the Tiger fighters to escape in the past.

Nor was Colombo wrong to round up all 300 000 Tamil civilians who were caught up in the Tigers’ last stand. Any surviving fighters were bound to try to hide themselves among the civilians, so a protracted sorting-out process was needed. But the Sri Lankan government promised that everybody except suspected fighters would be released within six months — and it has kept its word, more or less.

The camps have been emptying out fast over the past couple of months and Colombo promises that everybody will have gone home by the end of January. There are justifiable complaints that not enough is being done to help former detainees resettle, but there have been much uglier ends to long and brutal wars such as this one.

The problem lies not in the past, but in the future. The Tamils are always going to be there and the prospect of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on reconciling them to coexistence with the Sinhalese in a state that treats both communities fairly. They will probably never again create a semi-conventional army like the Tigers, but it would be all too easy for them to resort to terrorism again if they feel desperate enough. And it would be almost impossible to stop it.

The trouble is that it took an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese regime to create the army that defeated the Tigers and it is still in power. It does not want to welcome the Tamils back into equal citizenship, nor does it feel that it needs to. The Rajapaksa government has called an early election for January 26 to exploit its victory and consolidate its hold on power — and if it should happen to lose the election, then things may just get worse.

The Rajapaksas’ challenger is none other than General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army that finally defeated the Tigers. The main opposition group in the Sinhala community, the United National Party, has banded together with nine smaller parties and put Fonseka up as their presidential candidate.

Fonseka could actually win, for his role in the defeat of the Tigers was just as large as that of the Rajapaksas. But he is also just as uncompromising a Sinhalese nationalist: as the war was nearing a conclusion, he was heard to say that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese ... [minorities] can live in this country with us, but they must not try to demand undue things.” Like equality, perhaps?

That is the attitude that drove the Tamils into insurrection in the first place. The next time it wouldn’t take the same form, but it could guarantee another generation of misery, insecurity (and perhaps also tyranny) for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London - based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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