By Niall Ahern, Niall Ahern.
After 26 years and with over 70,000 deaths, the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has ended. Footage of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tiger's dead leader across news channels and the internet has initiated street parties across the capital Colombo as some citizens, who have previously only known war, ponder the prospect of peace at last. In President Rajapaksa's victory speech to Parliament, he declared: 'Today we have been able to liberate the entire country from the clutches of terrorism. We have been able to defeat one of the most heinous terrorist groups in the world.' What President Rajapaksa says is true. The Tigers have been carrying out attacks over land and sea since the war began in 1983. In more recent years, suicide bombings have become a notorious feature of the Tigers' strategy. Over the course of the war, they successfully set up and ran a separate administration in the north and east of the island which we only got some glimpse of when the army liberated Kilinochchi earlier this year.
All this aside however, the last few months of the war have become the most deadly for those trapped between the government forces and rebel fighters. Now the most immediate concern is the displaced people of the north, who are being sheltered at government-run welfare camps in Vavuniya. Their plight over the last few weeks has been argued by Jonathan Steele of the Guardian as 'being worse than that of those living in Gaza' during the most recent conflict at the end of last year. This is because, unlike those in Gaza, those displaced in the north of Sri Lanka have been trapped on a tiny stretch of beach, with no access to water, food or medical supplies. On top of this, they have had to live with repeated shelling by government forces in an area that had been designated a 'no-fire zone'.. Had they decided to flee (as some did), the Tigers themselves would have shot them. Reports of the number killed during the final months of the government's offensive on this 2.5 square mile stretch of land are impossible to verify as reporters are banned from the former conflict zone. However, the UN estimates that over 8,000 have been killed since January alone. It is now essential that the government takes urgent action on helping those left in this region and that it does this as quickly as possible. In order to stop grievances from the Tamils themselves, the government must open these camps up to the UN, international aid agencies and the media. This would not only allow those caught up to receive better treatment and care, but would also hold the government to account by checking it is, as it claims, only keeping displaced people there to weed out suspected Tiger rebels who fled with the rest of the civilians. Clearly in a war such as this, where Tiger fighters can easily assimilate back into the civilian population, the government has limited choices. But keeping innocent civilians who have been caught up in the conflict for up to a year for 're-education' is not only absurd, but will only make the government's attempts at reconciliation even more difficult then they already are.
In addition, the government may have won the war, but it faces a challenge that it has not been able to settle for decades – a political solution for the Tamils within the country. The last time the government had a chance to do this was 22 years ago where a real opportunity for devolution came about. Repeated failings by the government to implement this proposal have led many Tamils to lose all faith with promises of a solution. Now is the best chance in decades for President Rajapakse to prove these doubters wrong. By switching to Tamil in his victory speech, he is showing progress which he must now build upon. Ultimately, it is also of great importance that the international community should play a role in helping Sri Lanka, but it must do this when results are seen both on the ground and politically. First, the international community should ensure that the government commits to opening up the camps as quickly as possible. Second, they should ensure that aid is directed towards reconstructing the north and east following the latest phase of the war. And lastly, a political solution should be reached as quickly as possible. If President Rajapakse can genuinely build on his victory speech, declaring an end to ethnic and religious divisions, grant the Tamils some devolved power to Tamil self-government and create an inclusive state for Sri Lanka's ethnicities then at last Sri Lanka could live in peace. If he fails, and Tamils continue to find themselves persecuted, restricted to camps and excluded from having a say in the decisions that affect their lives, then it is only a matter of time before Tamil dissent erupts once again. For the sake the millions of Sri Lankans at home and abroad who have already lived with this war for most of their lives, the coming weeks and months may finally turn a page on their bitter history. Asia's longest war has indeed come to an end, but there are still significant difficulties to be overcome in creating a lasting peace.