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In Lanka, a job half done

Some had expected President Mahinda Rajapaksa to usher in a government of reconciliation, Instead the politicians capitalised on the victory, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

india Updated: May 20, 2010 09:09 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

It’s been a year since the longest civil war in South Asia ended. But the Sri Lankan army’s search missions continue to recover arms, live ammunition and even buried sea vessels that once belonged to the vanquished Tamil Tigers from the northern district of Mullaitivu.

More than 300 km away in Colombo — drenched this week in pre-monsoon showers and celebrations over a famous military victory — the search is on for something more elusive — a lasting peace, a permanent solution to the ethnic problem between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.

Sri Lanka’s been calm since May 18, 2009. But in the devastated north, for thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) — nearly 100 per cent of whom are Lankan Tamils — the battle continues. According to latest UN statistics, more than 70,000 are still in camps. Technically, over 210,000 IDPs were released to return to their villages. But what most returned to were the rubble and ruins. Their rehabilitation has far from taken off.

Politically, the Tamils are more or less where they were before the war began; they want more power in local administration, including land and police rights, but the government is not ready to share its authority.

There is little talk now of a separate Tamil country though the diaspora and remnants of the LTTE’s international network continue to keep the idea alive. The Tamil National Alliance — once the LTTE’s political proxy — has offered to cooperate with the government to work out a political solution within a united Sri Lanka.

Analysts and academics, however, are disappointed with the lack of progress in the political process since the end of the war.

Some had expected President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be magnanimous in victory, ushering in a government of reconciliation on the lines of post-apartheid South Africa. Instead the politicians capitalised on the military victory.

For Rajapaksa, of course, the last year has been momentous. Besides defeating the LTTE, he led the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance to two political victories, one in the January presidential poll and the second one in the April general election. Rival General Sarath Fonseka was consigned to military custody and faces military and civil cases. The other opposition leader, United National Party (UNP) chief, Ranil Wickremasinghe has lost 18 elections in a row and, naturally, is facing a few tough intra-party leadership questions.

On the home front, Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, has entered parliament to carry forward his legacy along with the president’s three powerful brothers; one the parliament speaker, the other the defence secretary and the third, minister for economic development.

There’s also talk of suitably amending the constitution in the next few months to remove the cap of two on the number of times a person could be president; Rajapaksa, coincidentally, has already won two presidential terms. A constitutional amendment is also likely to introduce a second chamber in parliament apparently to ensure more participation of communities and regions.

New Delhi, one hopes, is watching. There is a feeling among Lankan Tamils that India didn’t push for a ceasefire during the war’s last phase because the LTTE had assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; and this was India’s revenge on the Tigers.

But in spite of the anger, many also feel that New Delhi could ensure a political settlement and devolution of power.

“There is expectation that the recent elections will sow the seeds for genuine reconciliation between the various communities. At the same time, there is also apprehension that things may not quite work out the way they should and yet another opportunity may slip away,’’ India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told a conference in New Delhi last week.

But the worry is that between expectation and apprehension, the search for peace could become a permanent process.