Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

After the Tigers

May 18th, 2009 · 3 Comments

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When we went to bed last night, we were all set to kick off the week’s blogging with a “Where’s Prabhakaran?” post. But during our all-too-fleeting stay with the Sandman, the Tamil Tigers leader’s fate became widely known. Contrary to expectations, Prabhakaran did not end it all with a bite of cyanide, but rather (at least according to the Sri Lankan government) was gunned down while attempting to flee his last scrap of territory. And so endeth one of the planet’s longest, bloodiest civil wars, though not before untold thousands of innocent civilians were forced to die for the cause.

Now that the Tigers are no longer, the really tough part begins—patching together a nation torn asunder by a quarter-century of ethnic conflict. A deft political touch will be required; alas, there are few signs that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has what it takes to convince Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority to buy into the unity concept. The Economist broke down the challenges last month:

Undoing the damage its campaign has done to Sri Lanka’s economy, reputation and democratic institutions will take years. But the government’s abuses against Tamils may prove even costlier. Annihilating the LTTE will work only if, as the government claims, they do not represent the aspirations of their marginalised community. But its ethnically-guided “control measures”, in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s phrase, have suggested to many innocent Tamils that the government considers them terrorists. The internment of almost every resident of Mr Prabhakaran’s former northern fief, including some 70,000 before this week’s flood, provides a relatively mild, yet pressing, example of this.

Given that many of these people have grown up under the LTTE, the government obviously must vet them. It also reasonably notes that their mine-strewn paddy-fields may be unsafe for some time. Yet the government’s original plan, to keep this population penned up for a year or more, was outrageous. In a rare concession to its critics, the government has somewhat relented: it now aims to resettle 20% of the interns by the end of this month and 80% by the end of the year. Yet to members of a proud minority, almost without exception, such blundering confirms the government as just the sort of diehard Sinhalese overlord that drove the LTTE to take up arms in the first place. And indeed, some members of Mr Rajapaksa’s regime, including General Fonseka, are avowed Sinhalese chauvinists. So even moderate Tamils, their ranks severely thinned by LTTE assassins, say they will be worse off without Mr Prabhakaran as their champion.

The obvious solution is for the Sri Lankan government to find a way of redressing Tamil grievances through legal reform. But everything Microkhan hears out of Colombo indicates that such reform is not in the cards. The Rajapaksa government is enjoying a triumphal moment, one that is feeding an ugly form of jingoism that reviles not only Tamils, but anyone who dares question the absolute glory of the army’s victory.

That victory came at great cost—a cost we’ll never know in full, due to Sri Lanka’s policy of excluding journalists from the war zone (under pain of death in far too many cases). Microkhan worries that the government’s triumph will inspire other nation’s mired in civil war to adopt similar tactics. While one can’t question the Sri Lankan army’s right to crush a truly sinister Tamil insurgency-cum-death-cult, brutal force alone is never sufficient to erase decades or centuries of ethnic mistrust. There has to be more to Sri Lanka’s plans for peace. And the clock is already ticking.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I hope Rajapaksa has it in him to undercut his hardline supporters and reach out in a serious way to the Tamils. Hardliners on both sides drove the conflict for years and if they are undercut a long process of rebuilding trust could start. At least Tamil civilians won’t have to worry about forced LTTE conscription, but systematic marginalization looks all too likely to me.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Agreed, 100 percent.

    I’ll have a lot more on this topic in the coming days and weeks, so please keep an eye peeled. I’m not hopeful that Rajapaksa has the tact to draw Tamils into the Sri Lankan fold. My sense is that he sees no reason to make any concessions, given that he’s won a crushing military victory. Very short-sighted on his part, since that guarantees a renewal of sectarian strife at some point down the line.

    I’ll be curious to read his speech to Parliament, which I believe is due this week. Will it contain some sort of meaningful olive branch to the Tamils? Some road map for addressing their legitimate grievances, while making clear that any further violence will be counterproductive?

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