One of Asia’s longest running wars came to an end last week with the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the defeat of his military forces.
The LTTE chief was a ruthless guerilla leader.
He pioneered the art of suicide bombing and used it to assassinate two heads of government – Indian Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Prema- dasa.
In addition, at least nine cabinet ministers were assassinated in the course of the 30 year war.
He brooked no opposition from any quarter and dispatched a whole slate of moderate Tamil leaders who stood in his way as well.
Indeed, he began his infamous career by personally assassinating the moderate Tamil mayor of Jaffna.
His intransigence in negotiations made a military solution inevitable.
And let’s face it, the high number of civilians killed in the final days of the conflict is partly due to the fact that he had no qualms about using his own people as human shields.
Yet, he was undoubtedly loved and admired by many Tamils.
To them, he represented their hopes for freedom, their desire to be treated with respect and dignity.
This was a war that needn’t have started; it is a lesson to us all about the folly of communal politics.
As well, it is a reminder that a nation cannot be built on injustice, inequality and sectarianism.
Sri Lanka was once a tranquil island where both Sinhalese and Tamils lived together in peace.
Politicians, however, stoked up racial and ethnic sentiment to win votes.
Language laws were soon introduced.
A policy of discrimination towards Tamils was implemented.
Ethnic hatred and suspicion were sowed.
When you sow to the wind, you invariably reap a whirlwind! People who are marginalised and excluded will sooner or later push back in one way or another.
Witness Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Pakistan/Bangladesh.
The same thing is happening today in Palestine, in Southern Thailand, in Southern Philippines and in Tibet.
History teaches us that if the pleas of the moderates go unheeded for long enough, the voices of the radicals will come to the fore.
The LTTE leader galvanised and radicalised Tamil dissatisfaction and the rest is history, as they say.
Eighty thousand people are estimated to have died in the conflict.
The conflict set back Sri Lanka’s development by decades.
Communal politics always carries a huge price tag.
There are certainly no winners in this sad and tragic episode of Sri Lanka’s history.
Sri Lanka now has a unique opportunity to begin anew, following the government’s victory.
They can learn something from our experience in Malaysia – not from our successes but from our failures.
Because we were not willing to make the tough political decisions concerning national unity at the time of our independence, we are still grappling with it more than 50 years later.
If we had made wiser choices then, we could easily have become the most prosperous and dynamic country in all Asia.
If Colombo opts for genuine reconciliation and brings forward a new political architecture based on respect, equality and inclusion, there is a real chance that the country can go on to be a prosperous, peaceful and democratic nation.
If it fails to do so, it should have no illusions that it will only be sowing the seeds for the next great insurgency, the next cycle of violence and strife, and ultimately the demise of democracy itself in Sri Lanka.
Sadly, the signs thus far are not very encouraging.
There is already an upsurge of jingoism in the wake of victory.
And jingoism is invariably the forerunner of folly.
Over 300,000 Tamil civilians are being intern- ed in special camps.
According to the government, they could be there for up to two years.
While the government might have genuine concerns about the remnants of the LTTE, it is simply bad policy to incarcerate civilians under any circumstances.
Like it or not, the world will be outraged by such behaviour, and rightly so.
Given that the LTTE forcibly conscripted civilians and ruled by terror, the government should consider an immediate amnesty for all LTTE foot soldiers and supporters in the interest of national reconciliation.
As the situation stabilises, the government should also seek every opportunity to engage the remaining LTTE leaders and bring them into the democratic process, if they are prepared to renounce armed struggle.
Northern Ireland’s lessons are worth looking at.
In any case, all refugees should be allowed to return to their homes and the international community should immediately be invited to help in humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has waged a successful campaign against the LTTE and won.
Can he be magnanimous in victory and use the enormous political capital he now enjoys to convince his Sinhalese constituency that it is time to heal the wounds of Sri Lanka’s dark night of communalism and war? Will he be the president that not only won the war but rebuilt the nation on a new foundation of justice and equality for all? He should rise to the occasion and be president of all Sri Lankans.
Diplomatically speaking / The Star (M)