Life after the tigers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2009, 12:00am

Sri Lanka's government reckons it is at the end game of its fight with separatist rebels from the Tamil ethnic minority. It would outwardly seem to be right, given that the military now has the guerillas cornered and outnumbered in a small coastal strip of jungle in the island's northeast. The 50,000 or so civilians trapped in the conflict zone are proving problematic, although when their safety can be assured, the final push can begin. But the killing or capture of the last insurgent will not mean the end of the civil war; that will come only when authorities decide on a policy of reintegration.

Tamils are second-class citizens in their own country. This is not obvious from the constitution or government policy; the only hint is that the national language has been determined to be that of the main ethnic group, the Sinhalese. Laws adopted by successive Sinhalese-controlled governments have made the situation obvious, though. Discrimination against Tamils by the judiciary, police, employers and society in general is rife.

This was clearly laid out to me on Wednesday by a Tamil living in Colombo. Rules that once restricted his access to university and working for the civil service no longer apply. He can speak his language when and wherever he likes. But getting a job is another matter. Should a crime be committed and he just happens to be in the vicinity, he will be an immediate suspect.

There are implications for this in a country where 26 years of civil war has eroded the rule of law to the point of being dysfunctional. Police and the military are laws unto themselves. Corruption is rampant. Multiply this situation in the north and east, the focus of the conflict and fight for a Tamil homeland, and you get an idea of why the war is far from over.

It is inevitable that the military will be victorious. The rebels, who call themselves the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are on their last legs. Their defeat on the battlefield will be a welcome moment for the world. To want a separate nation within Sri Lanka was ill-conceived, but not wrong; to use terror tactics like suicide bombing, assassination and piracy as means to achieve it was repugnant.

The government has two choices when it captures the last bit of territory. The first would be firmly in character and wholly justifiable in the eyes of many Sinhalese: revenge and retribution. Officially, at least 70,000 people have been killed as a result of the civil war, destroying families and creating deep wounds in society. The economy has been wrecked, causing poverty and hardship. Keep in mind that Arab traders in past centuries called Sri Lanka Serendip, the charmed island (from the name we get the word serendipity, which means good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries). Under subsequent Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule, renamed Ceylon, it was known as a paradise, a place where spices and long life were all around. It still would be, were it not for the ethnic divisions and civil war.

The government's other choice is to give equality in every way to Tamils. This will not come overnight - or easily. The marginalising of Tamils is well engrained, having been formally started with the passing of the 1956 Sinhala-only language law. This was in part a reaction to the British having favoured Tamils, especially when it came to state jobs. Under the 1972 constitution, Buddhism, the religion of most Sinhalese, was granted 'the foremost place' in community life, making Tamil religions subordinate as far as the state was concerned. Ridding Sri Lanka of prejudices and suspicions will involve a lengthy education process. Repairing broken systems means time, dedication, and funding that the country does not have at present.

Taking the second path is essential. To deny Tamils equality is to invite an insurgency. The US and its allies know only too well what this means from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tamil guerillas, who pioneered the use of suicide bombings, are better versed than any other terror group in the world to turn battleground defeat and government denial of an abhorrent situation into a different, but just as deadly, type of rebellion.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post