Sri Lanka: If war ends, can a divided nation heal?
Many see the Army's all-out fight as the only way to defeat Tamil rebels. But ending a cycle of ethnic conflict in the country may prove harder than a military victory.
HATTON, SRI LANKA
The long, bloody civil war never came to this market town, deep in the tea-growing highlands. No suicide bombings. No Army massacres.Skip to next paragraph
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But the anger and alienation that fed a generation of revolt by Sri Lanka's Tamil minority still burn here, far from the battlefields of the north. Everyday hassles, not the struggle for self-rule, are largely to blame: racial profiling by abusive police; few Tamil-speaking bureaucrats; official documents issued only in Sinhalese, the language of the majority.
Such discrimination undercuts any promise of pluralism to heal a divided nation, says P.P. Devaraj, a retired Tamil lawmaker. Divisions are also found within the Tamils, who split along north-south lines based on migration patterns. But the deepest fault line – and the crux of the conflict – is between Sinhalese and Tamils. "The feeling on the part of the Sinhalese majority is that the country belongs to them, that Tamils must realize this is a Sinhalese country," he says.
After 26 years, the military appears close to victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which seeks a ministate in this Indian Ocean island. The group's fighters are pinned down in a shrinking northeast corridor, along with hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians.
Many Sri Lankans see the all-out fight against the Tigers as the only way to end the war, whatever the cost. Politicians who question this are drowned out by those seeing a bright future for a war-weary nation after the defeat of Tamil terrorism.
But ending a cycle of ethnic conflict may prove much harder than a military victory. Even among Tamils who reject its violence and political goals, the LTTE's apparent near-defeat leaves a bitter taste. Few are ready to trust a Sinhalese-dominated government to roll back decades of discrimination. "It's like a train. There's first class, and there's second class," says Odaya Ramiah, a veteran organizer of Hatton tea-estate workers.
The roots of the conflict go back to the early days of independence in 1948 from British colonialism. Feeling excluded by an English-speaking elite, Sinhalese sought official language status. The 1956 "Sinhala Only" law drove a wedge between the Sinhalese-dominated south and Tamils in the north, leading to demands in the 1970s for federalism that morphed into armed revolt.
Government officials say language policy has since been changed to include Tamil, which is taught in some public schools. Tamils worship freely at Hindu temples and Christian churches (most Sinhalese are Buddhist). They argue that far from being an oppressed people – as the LTTE claims – Tamils have excelled in business and many live comfortably in the capital, Colombo.