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Almost three decades of war between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May, when the Sri Lankan military waged a final battle with the Tamil Tigers and killed the group's leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
The state emerged victorious, but at a great cost: months of intense fighting in the country's north killed up to 7,000 civilians and injured another 13,000, according to UN estimates. As the conflict drew to a close, about 287,000 Tamils were interned in government-controlled refugee camps.
In Colombo, the country's capital, and in southern parts of the island dominated by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, the military victory was met with an outpouring of relief and celebration. But many in Sri Lanka's Tamil ethnic minority -- 18 percent of the population -- reacted warily, wondering what would happen after the fall of the last resistance to Sinhalese dominance.
As the war ended, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's president, spoke of engaging the Tamil population and fostering national reconciliation. But today, two months after its victory, the state is still detaining large numbers of Tamil civilians and has done little to further the power-sharing arrangements sought by the country's Tamil and Muslim communities. Unless the Sri Lankan government adopts more humane and inclusive policies toward the country's minorities, it will not be able to turn its military victory into a long-term peace.
Today, most of the Tamils detained by the government remain behind barbed wire in "welfare" camps. Although the overwhelming majority of detainees have no connection to the Tamil Tigers -- and, in fact, took substantial risks to flee to the government side -- the state fears there may be LTTE members among them and is releasing them very slowly and only after extensive screening. Such arbitrary detention not only strips these displaced Tamils of their basic democratic rights as citizens but, once again, provides fertile soil for the growth of resentment and hostility.
The state should move quickly to allow Sri Lanka's war-affected population to return home, and to provide the security and resources necessary for normal life to resume. The Sri Lankan government has promised to complete this process within six months, once the land in the formerly LTTE-held areas has been cleared of mines and basic infrastructure has been restored. Many countries -- such as India, led by the new Congress government -- have promised generous financial and technical assistance to help complete this task. In addition, the International Monetary Fund has recently approved a loan of $2.6 billion, $313 million of which is immediately available.
The LTTE disrupted many of the country's administrative and political functions during its decades-long insurgency. Restarting those services in the areas most affected by the war must be a priority of the central government. So far, it has promised to hold local elections this month in Jaffna and Vavuniya (two cities in the largely Tamil north) and provincial council elections in the country's northern province soon after. During the war, many local communities in Sri Lanka were not able to freely elect their representatives, which hindered local services and allowed support for the Tamil insurgency to grow. Holding a new round of elections, therefore, would be a measure of good governance and contribute to long-term stability.
The government will only win lasting support of the country's ethnic minorities if it provides them with a legitimate and empowered political structure. For this, it needs to establish a power-sharing agreement that would decentralize control between the government in Colombo and the provinces.
In his first major address after the end of the war, Rajapaksa spoke in favor of such a "home-grown solution." And he does not have to look far to find it: the country's All Party Representative Committee (APRC), established in June 2006, has developed proposals for constitutional change that would foster reconciliation between the state and Sri Lanka's minority communities. The committee submitted an interim report to the president in early 2008 but must still reach agreement on some points. It builds on the system of provincial councils that were introduced as a result of a treaty between Sri Lanka and India in 1987, with the acquiescence of some Tamil groups. Some opposition parties -- including a right-wing Sinhalese party and several representing Tamil interests -- have remained outside the committee. Without their participation, it is unclear how smoothly the APRC proposals will be accepted.
By themselves, neither military victories nor immediate political initiatives will be able to overcome more than 50 years of hostility and antagonism between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which began within several years of Sri Lanka's independence in 1948.
Major ethnic violence first broke out in 1956, after legislation designated Sinhala as the country's only official language. Over the years, the state discriminated against the Tamils in employment, subsidized land-colonization programs, and university admissions.
By the early 1970s, a whole generation of Tamil youth had become politically disillusioned and ideologically radicalized. Prabhakaran carried out his first political assassination in 1975; a year later, he formed the LTTE. Within a decade, the Tigers had distinguished themselves from other separatist movements with their use of brutality in asserting dominance over all other rival Tamil political and militant groups.
The outbreak of ethnic violence in 1983 led to civil war. Over the years, the state's conflict with the LTTE caused close to 100,000 deaths and left many more injured, internally displaced, or seeking refuge abroad. At its peak, the LTTE had more than 18,000 fighters. With the Tigers proving difficult to defeat, the Sri Lankan military also grew, to the current force of 200,000 soldiers.
Now that the Tigers have been defeated and their secessionist platform is off the table, the time is ripe for building national consensus on the future of a unified Sri Lankan state. But instead of focusing on building internal unity, the leading parties seem more concerned with political maneuvering. Rajapaksa has expressed interest in holding a presidential election as early as this November -- two years ahead of schedule -- in an attempt to cash in on the immense popularity earned from the victory over the LTTE.
At the same time, he is wary of antagonizing right-wing Sinhalese, on whose support he depended for winning election in 2005. Consequently, he has declared he will work only within the existing constitution, which lacks provisions for power sharing among ethnic groups. It appears that any substantive political change, therefore, will be put off until new elections are held.
How effectively the government manages to integrate the Tamils into Sri Lanka's political system will determine the country's trajectory in the aftermath of the war. The deaths of Prabhakaran and other LTTE leaders do not mean that the dangers posed by extremist nationalism are over. If the state continues to neglect the Tamils' grievances, it is possible that violent militancy could rear its head once again.
The question, then, is whether the Sri Lankan government will use its victory in this bloody conflict to win over the country's minorities with a program of reconciliation and power sharing. Or will a centralized political system dominated by the majority prevail, stoking discontent in Sri Lanka for years to come?