Battles ahead

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

THE only thing constant in life is change. This universally acknowledged fact holds good for the victors and the vanquished of Sri Lankas Eelam War IV. Human history is littered with examples of role reversal. The history of post-British Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) reinforces this point.

On the afternoon of May 19, the Sri Lankan military scored a comprehensive victory in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Velupillai Prabakaran is dead, but the spirit the LTTE leader represented (future historians are best suited to judge the nature of it) will continue to haunt all stakeholders in the ethnic conflict in the island nation. The LTTE is undoubtedly a part of the problem, but its military annihilation helps only to an extent in clearing the obstacles in the path of resolution of the ethnic strife and in finding a political solution acceptable to all.

As things stand, there is little doubt that no one has harmed the Sri Lankan Tamil cause more than Prabakaran and the militant organisation he controlled with an iron hand. The LTTEs drift away from the cause it claimed to espouse, which began in the mid-1980s and acquired an unstoppable momentum with the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, reached a point of no return the day Prabakaran was pronounced dead.

Yet, the reality is that no single individual or organisation caught the imagination of Sri Lankan Tamils of all persuasions as the LTTE did. Prabakaran was either loved/adored or hated there was no middle path. It is no surprise that the Tamil community is either in a state of denial or in shock and confusion. Large sections of the Tamil populace feel orphaned.

In this context, it would be a fallacy to assume that with the death of Prabakaran the root cause of the ethnic conflict has vanished. The majority Sinhala communitys representatives of all hues and even Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan President and head of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), have no illusions on this count.

The immediate tasks before Rajapaksa and the challenges that lie ahead in the restoration of peace are enormous. First and foremost, the government has the huge responsibility of providing basic needs for the 300,000-odd internally displaced persons, who are currently housed in temporary shelters spread across the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. The government is just not geared up for the task. It is not just a question of political will but of resources and expertise.

The government failed to make a correct estimate of the number of civilians held hostage by the Tigers in the final stages of the war. When the United Nations and other agencies asserted in the first half of April that there were at least 2.25 lakh civilians, the government insisted that the number could not be more than 70,000 under any circumstances.

The U.N. estimation turned out to be right. The government ought to remember this when it embarks on the gigantic task of rehabilitating the civilians.

Mere good intentions (Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said the government would like the displaced persons to return to their hometowns as ambassadors of the Rajapaksa regime) cannot take the government anywhere. It is instructive to remember that there are at least 3,000 pregnant women, children, and a large number of aged men and women in the camps. Going by the militarys estimate, they are living amongst 9,100-odd self-confessed and otherwise identified LTTE cadre. The government must enlist the support of the U.N. and other international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) equipped to deal with such situations.

True, the government has to do a balancing act of ensuring the safety and security of the displaced persons and rehabilitating the Tiger cadre. At the same time, the intermediate period of 180 days in which the government hopes to resettle all the civilians could be used to provide the much-needed healing touch to the people, who have undergone enormous sufferings in the past few months.

Since the third week of May, the government has been engaged in a spat with the U.N. and the INGOs on the question of immediate and unhindered access to the camps of the displaced. The concerns of the military and the government are perfectly understandable, but no purpose was served by the public exchanges. The handling of the subject by the government brought to the fore the rift between some sections of the Rajapaksa regime and the NGOs. A small section of the aid organisations is known for its record of unethical practices.

However, given the dimensions of the challenge, it would be prudent on the part of both parties to bury the past and move forward. In the absence of such trust and confidence, it will not be possible for the government to fulfil its commitment to send the civilians back to their homes within the stipulated time frame.

No one disputes the fact that the government and the military deserve kudos for their hard-earned victory against the LTTE. But the victory laps across the length and breadth of the country will have serious implications in a multi-ethnic, multilinguistic and multicultural society.

The LTTE as a conventional force may be history, but as of June 10, three weeks after the organisation was vanquished, the loud celebrations have not ceased. This will certainly not go down well with the Tamils and the Muslims who are coping with the fallout of the war. The earlier the government calls off the victory rallies, parades and commemorations, the better. As Rajapaksa noted at one such rally in Colombo on June 3, The war is over. Now is the time to win the hearts and minds of Tamils.

World Socialist Web Site noted: At the local level, small-scale celebrations have been organised by ruling party MPs and local politicians to honour even colonels, majors and captains. The media have reported all these events, large and small, conducted discussion forums and published interview after interview with the defence chiefs. The tone and tenor of these celebrations does not augur well for rapprochement, reconciliation, peace, development and equal treatment of all citizens, which is the need of the hour.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted on June 9, in his reply to the debate on the motion of thanks to the Presidents address to the joint session of Parliament, that the Tamils problem was much larger than the LTTE and hoped the Sri Lankan government would show imagination and courage in meeting the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamil people.

India has made it known that it has no intention of instructing Colombo on the political front but is ready to play an active part in the relief and rehabilitation of the internally displaced persons and has earmarked Rs.500 crore for the purpose. We are willing to do more to restore normality and to help such people return to their rightful homes and occupations, Manmohan Singh told Parliament. By and large this is the position of an overwhelming majority of governments.

There is consensus within and outside Sri Lanka that with the LTTE out of the way, a golden opportunity has presented itself before the government to work towards a just, honourable and durable political settlement of the ethnic conflict.

To quote a columnist in Daily Mirror, the English language daily published from Colombo: The senior members of the Tamil National Alliance should now sit with the President and talk without rushing to India and trying to press for what they perceive is a political solution. They should talk with the President and become a party to a political solution and to the rebuilding and development process of the north.

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