The world hasn’t rejoiced like it would for the defeat of al Qaeda, and rightfully so. The military demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been followed by the caution of knowing that, though the battle may be over, the war is not. Not until the fat lady sings.
In Sri Lanka, the fat lady hungers for human rights, including political rights and equal political representation, the linchpin to peace. In understanding the LTTE, consider it as a relative of the Taleban in Pakistan and the PKK in Turkey rather than al Qaeda.
The Taleban and PKK are akin to the LTTE because they, in a round about way, are fighting for political representation. Having been invaded multiple times, the Taleban and PKK want states to protect themselves and their followers. Al Qaeda is purely ideologically driven; it has no concern for achieving political representation in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The military defeat of al Qaeda would end without political reverberation, as it doesn’t fight for anyone’s rights. The Taleban and PKK have transitioned to political movements though, and their defeat on the battlefield is unlikely to end the underlying political wars. If Pashtuns and Kurds are continually marginalized, instability will spawn new militant organizations.
The same goes for the LTTE and the Tamils. As much as the West hates its methods, the LTTE isn’t fighting out of ideological hatred like al Qaeda. It isn’t fighting just to fight and it doesn’t despise human civilization. The LTTE wanted a state to protect and represent the minority it claimed to fight for.
Luckily the Sri Lankan government has shown signs of understanding this problem. Its own methods for waging war against the LTTE are controversial and could foster distrust among Tamils, but at the very least the government is saying the right things.
“Our motherland has been completely liberated from separatist terrorism,” said President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the rebels. We all must now live as equals in this free country.”
A separate Tamil state on the Sri Lanka island was unrealistic; this unachievable goal was the LTTE’s ultimate downfall. It may have been as unrealistic for Tamils to achieve equal rights with the Sinhalese majority, but a Tamil state was always further away than political representation. Now that a Tamil state has been squashed, Sri Lanka must demonstrate that the alternate path is a viable one.
If the Tamils are denied an outlet for their political struggle, they’ll return to military means.
Whether Rajapaksa lives up to his proclamation remains to be seen, but his conciliatory tone is a necessary beginning. He’s also in danger though, for to default on his promise of power-sharing with the Tamils would guarantee the LTTE's regeneration. Rajapaksa is in the complex position of having to placate the victims of his victory. He must correct the conditions that gave rise to the battle or else the war will keep burning.
“We have to have a discussion among ourselves, among the political leaders who represent the communities, and come up with a new Sri Lankan identity,” said Sri Lanka's opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. “If any other community feels that they are still being discriminated (against) then we are only leaving room for trouble in the future.”
That most Sri Lankan leaders understand this dilemma is good news for the country and the international community, but knowledge alone is insufficient. Any harassment against the Tamils will have an exaggerated effect now that the LTTE is dismantled. Having lost part of their protection, the Tamils are at the mercy of the Sri Lankan government. With no one to protect their interests, the government will take full blame if the Tamil’s rights are violated.
The Tamils must not be provoked because uprisings could easily spark. Sri Lankan Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella claims, “They [Tamils] are now used to a certain type of lifestyle; they quarrel with each other, and we need a law and order situation to be maintained. We will perhaps need another 40,000-50,000 (troops).”
Surrounding 250,000 refugees with Sri Lankan troops may not be the best place to start. The Sri Lankan government must be meticulous in engaging the Tamil minority. Military battles come and go in guerrilla warfare, but the political war will never end unless equality prevails. Make that lady sing, Sri Lanka.