Sri Lanka may have achieved the seemingly impossible by militarily crushing the LTTE but it will need much more than brute strength to set right the wrongs of the lingering ethnic divide in the country.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in November 2005, the new president confided to a diplomat friend that he had three aims: split the opposition to shore up his own majority in the fractured parliament, defeat the LTTE militarily and then seek a political settlement to the ethnic conflict.
Rajapaksa achieved the first rather easily, the second at a terrible price, the consequences of which will be felt for a long time. He will now have to keep the third promise. This alone will show whether or not Sri Lanka can transform itself into a nation state after over a quarter century of strife and bloodshed.
Sri Lankan leaders would need to avoid any display of triumph that would suggest that the Sinhalese as a community have defeated the Tamils. This war, remember, left tens of thousands dead, wounded and maimed on both sides of the ethnic divide. The need of the hour is magnanimity and efforts that lead to genuine reconciliation.
The government may want to replicate in the north the political experiment in the east that it seized from the LTTE two years ago. In the east, now presided over by a chief minister who is a former LTTE guerrilla, Sri Lanka provides 4 D’s: De-militarisation, Democratization, Development, Devolution. The policy has only been a mixed success, however.
Besides resettling the large mass of 2,50,000 Tamils displaced in recent fighting and the thousands of Muslims driven out of Jaffna by the LTTE earlier, Colombo would have to deal with hundreds, even thousands, of LTTE guerrillas who have surrendered.
Sri Lanka may also want to demobilize a part of the armed forces, whose bloated strength may be deemed unnecessary now that the LTTE has been crushed. At the same time, it will be necessary to induct into the police and armed forces a vast number of Tamils who had embraced militancy.
If Sri Lanka has to build a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation where no one feels discriminated institutionally, the state will have to go for serious reforms that give the minorities, Tamil-speaking Muslims included, legitimate share in governance. The recent past has not been very promising on this count.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not seem to be very serious in unveiling genuine devolution. He has cited various reasons to delay this, claiming at times that Sri Lankans know better than anyone else what is good for them and what is not.
This is one area where India will have to make it clear that its unflinching support for a united Sri Lanka was meant to synchronise with a fair and genuine political settlement to long-standing Tamil grievances.
(The author is Executive Editor at IANS and the author of two books on Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, including the only biography of LTTE chief Prabhakaran.)