The debris of war is never a pretty sight. As the black, acrid smoke of gunfire gradually cleared from the skies above the 26-year-old battlefield in Sri Lanka, it revealed much the same: two scarred communities, eerily desolate towns with roofless homes and abandoned street dogs. And more than 2,50,000 lakh Tamil refugees.
The conventional military war between the Sri Lanka Army with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is all but over. Now comes the news that LTTE Chief Prabhakaran is dead. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime has won a violent military victory. But now, he has to win the peace that has eluded this island nation more or less since the 1950s when Sri Lanka’s Tamil community began their first protests against Colombo on the ‘Sinhala-language only’ issue.
The first job of the President and his brothers, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya and presidential advisor Basil, is cut out. It is the rehabilitation of the Tamil refugees, thousands of whom have been repeatedly displaced. They moved with the LTTE as the rebels got gradually boxed inside a sliver of land on the coasts of Mullaitivu. These refugees, now staying in flimsy tents and behind barbed wires, once lived modest lives in their homes. Now, they have nothing.
The Lankan government basking in the new triumph of military victory will have to ensure that their lives do not end in camps. The international community, especially India, must put pressure on the Lankan government to ensure that the displaced are helped in returning to a somewhat normal life.
The government is wary about the LTTE cadres and sympathisers among the civilians; it is a legitimate worry. The cadres should be screened — the government has its methods of doing this — and rehabilitated.
The Rajapaksa regime has to be held accountable for the present and the future of these internally displaced persons (IDPs). Their treatment in the camps and then the process of rehabilitation — it obviously cannot happen overnight and will take time — should be transparent.
The government, for one, was caught repeating the wrong statistics as far as the number of refugees was concerned. For weeks, the government denied that the number of Tamils in the war zone was more than 70,000. It is now over the 2,50,000 lakh-mark. The Rajapaksa regime also denied using heavy weapons against civilians. But there have been allegations that the military lobbed artillery shells inside the safety zone, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.
Uncertainty also surrounds the future of the Tamil community in the rest of the country. Many Tamils in Colombo are going about their lives with their heads down, maintaining overtly that now that the LTTE has been destroyed militarily, the situation could improve. But under the surface is panic.
The government, on its part, has repeatedly said that it would do what was needed to address the grievances of the community. Rajapaksa has said on many occasions that the military is fighting a war against a terrorist group, not against a community. Indeed, there are Tamil politicians who are now part of the government and hold ministerial portfolios.
But it is far from enough. Over the last year, at least three Tamil community-specific censuses were held in Colombo. The census was termed as “one for those who had migrated to Colombo in the last five years from the north and the east.’’ Such specific counting does not quite help in binding communities.
Sri Lanka needs to evolve a political solution acceptable to all parties in general and Tamil parties in particular. The talk of regional devolution of power, and the 13th Amendment, has been going on since 1987 when the Indo-Lanka accord was signed. Tamil politicians have suggested that a federal structure needs to be evolved within a united Sri Lanka where Tamil-speaking people would have a substantial say in their own affairs like development, law and order and irrigation. The community’s share in public services, police and military should be increased. More importantly, the Tamil community needs to be assured that they are not second-class citizens of the country.
The debris of war can indeed be cleared to make way for a new beginning.
Sutirtho Patranobis is the Hindustan Times correspondent in Colombo