Victory but not peace

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The Sri Lankan army is headed for a final victory over the remnants of the once formidable conventional forces of the Tamil Tigers. Unlike previous military successes for the government side in the quarter century of civil war which has both blighted and brutalised the island, this one seems likely to end by depriving the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE, of any geographical base. The word “final”, of course, begs questions. A movement which can claim the grim distinction of having invented suicide bombing and other vicious techniques of modern terrorism, which retains a degree of popular support in the Tamil areas, and which still commands the allegiance of many in the Tamil diaspora, will not give up easily.

The war is staggering to a close in a way that, as so often before, endangers, punishes and kills civilians. Colombo offers virtually no access to its military operations even for its own journalists, let alone foreign ones, but the evidence available to the UN and other neutral agencies suggests that civilians have suffered, and continue to suffer, many casualties.

Victory may reduce but will not eliminate that exposure. In a period where the war is over but the peace remains to be won, it is sadly predictable that there will be more bombs and assassination attempts, followed by countermeasures by Colombo’s security forces.

How many more depends on the capacity of the two communities to make a new start. The damage done to Sri Lankan society by war has been huge. Money that should have gone on civil projects has been burnt up in the military effort, reform in every area has been repeatedly postponed, and the long neglect of civil life and of the economy is taking its toll just as the international recession deepens. The Tamil diaspora, itself in part a product of the hostilities, could have contributed to the prosperity of the north and east, but elements within it instead contributed toward the war.

The social damage has been worse than the economic. On the government side, there has been an erosion of the rule of law, of press freedom, and of human rights in general. The LTTE, in the areas it has controlled, has been ruthless in its marshalling of youth for war and savage in its treatment of critics and dissidents. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, has been compared to Pol Pot and Abdullah Ocalan. Whether the Colombo government can follow its military success with a plan combining real autonomy for Tamil areas with measures aimed at reviving their all but defunct economies is one question. Whether there are those on the Tamil side who can or who will be allowed to respond is another. The real challenge for both will come after the guns fall silent.