The president offered some reassurance to those that stayed to listen. Speaking in both Sinhalese and Tamil, Rajapaksa said the defeat of the Tigers should not be seen as a defeat for the Tamil community. He also claimed that the protection of all people, Tamils included, was his “duty and responsibility”. He should now be given time to show whether he can live up to this duty and responsibility.
The west has a role to play here. The EU has demanded an inquiry into war crimes because of the high civilian casualties during the latter stages of the war. It also has the ability to withdraw lucrative preferential trade status worth $150m to Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa will be hoping more favourable views will prevail within the commission as they did three years ago to help him win the war. In 2006 the EU froze all Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam assets in Europe. That decision was a body blow from which the rebels never properly recovered. Having once ruled almost a quarter of the country, they were gradually squeezed into a corner. Their defeat seemed inevitable from the start of this year when they were hemmed into the tiny north-east coastal jungles of Mullaitivu.
On Monday Sri Lanka’s army chief, General Sarath Fonseca announced all combat operations had ended in the north of the island. Tigers’ leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and several of his senior commanders were killed in a rocket attack in the final fighting. Fearing a last stand in an area the size of New York’s Central Park, LTTE official Selvarasa Pathmanathan issued an email to Associated Press that finally told the world the Tigers had surrendered. “This battle has reached its bitter end,” wrote Pathmanathan. “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.”
The silence of the guns caused an eruption of celebration in the south. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon arrived in the capital Colombo on Friday in an attempt to influence Rajapaksa’s plans. Ban would have found the streets full of revellers delighted that the war was “over”. But he also knows there are 300,000 refugees in the north for whom the war is far from finished.
Ban is visiting the refugees who are spread out at dozens of massive government-run camps scattered around the north. Rajapaksa also needs to reach out quickly to these people to ensure his military victory will not be vain. He has drained the swamp of insurgents but they can easily find a new breeding ground. Rajapaksa has to quickly stop Tamils from re-grouping as a disaffected minority who could eventually begin the cycle of guerrilla war all over again.
There are some signs it is happening. Last week, Rajapaksa sent his wife Shiranthi to visit the main refugee camp at Manik Farm (which was already a city of 30,000 people by the end of April and at least twice as big today). The Sri Lankan broadcasting corporation reported Shiranthi handed over a consignment of emergency aid while “one thousand spectacles were also donated to persons with vision impairments”.
But they will need to give a lot more than spectacles for the Tamils to see the government is serious. Having Velupillai Prabhakaran out of the way helps. The 54 year old LTTE leader was an extremist who could not, or would not deal with the government. He was instrumental in introducing suicide bombing tactics such as the 1996 Central Bank in Colombo attack which killed 90 and injured more than a thousand. Prabhakaran’s death would also have been welcomed by India. He has been a wanted man there since the Tigers were implicated in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet India’s role in shaping Sri Lankan affairs remains crucial. Directly across the Palk Strait from the island live 60 million Tamils people in one of India’s most volatile and important electoral regions, Tamil Nadu. People from Tamil Nadu began migrating to Sri Lanka a thousand years ago but Indian Tamils still strongly identify with their fellow ethnics across the strait. Colombo has always baulked at Indian demands for a federal constitution in Sri Lanka but now might be the time to listen. In the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy reminded Sri Lanka again this week that a federal constitution was the best way to ensure Tamil rights.
Swamy is probably right, but a constitutional change will take some time to implement. In the meantime Rajapaksa has a large laundry list of reconciliation tasks to be going on with: quickly resettling the homeless, dealing with prisoners of war, ending the repeated security checks Tamils face in their daily lives, allowing freedom of speech in the media, and holding elections in the north as soon as possible. And he must do all this while preventing further bloodshed, convincing his own army it is necessary to compromise in victory, and persuading the west to support the nation’s redevelopment instead of probing into war crimes. Tricky times lie ahead. Mahinda Rajapaksa still has a lot of work to do to ensure his reputation as the saviour of Sri Lanka.