With the military decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a painful chapter in contemporary Indian and Sri Lankan history has come to an end. But the cost in civilian suffering has been enormous, as the UN has pointed out. At least 20,000 civilians have died and 300,000 displaced. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has wisely chosen to be magnanimous in victory and has already spoken of his protection for the island nation’s minority Tamils.
But there are two worrying factors. Mr Rajapaksa’s victory could well lead to a resurgence of Sinhala nationalism, never too far from the surface in Sri Lanka. So decisively has the Lankan army routed the Tigers, that there will now be very little opposition to any course that the Rajapaksa government takes vis-à-vis the Tamils. After the elections in India, and the accommodation of champions of the Tamil issue such as the DMK, there is not likely to be too much hype over this in the state. With the new Indian government busy getting off the starting blocks, it too will be pre-occupied with domestic issues for some time now. The task before Mr Rajapaksa is winning the peace. While the LTTE will not be able to regroup, there is bound to be simmering resentment among many Tamils over their miserable situation. Those crowded into refugee camps, according to the Tamil United Liberation Front, a moderate Tamil group, have no sanitation, medical care or security. The first priority should be these unfortunate people. The next would be transparency about the extent of civilian deaths and destruction of property. The political settlement should be undertaken simultaneously.
To this end, it is heartening that President Rajapaksa has said that he is willing to go beyond the 13th amendment on devolution of power to the Tamils. This was the cornerstone of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 hammered out by the late Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayawardene. The key words now should be relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and reconciliation. Hopefully with opportunistic politics and destructive influences out of the picture, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have a real chance to get their lives back on an even keel after decades of pain and suffering. This is an opportunity that cannot be frittered away. And, if successfully undertaken, will be the real and lasting legacy of the Rajapaksa presidency.