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How will Sri Lanka reconcile after a bitter war?

The campaign against the Tamil Tigers appears to be ending. But deep ethnic divides behind the conflict remain.

By Mian RidgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2009

Some 100,000 civilians have fled the area held by the Tamil Tigers, including these receiving government aid in Putumatalan, northern Sri Lanka. Though the war appears to be drawing to a close, the cause behind it remains.

David Gray/Reuters



Whether victory is declared within days or weeks, Sri Lanka's once seemingly endless war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam appears, finally, to be drawing to a close. But while the battle may be won, there are concerns that the ethnic conflict that lay behind it will continue to simmer and boil.

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The probable final showdown in one of Asia's longest-running wars began Monday, when the Army broke into the last remaining redoubt of the LTTE, located in a narrow strip of coastland in the north.

Only two years ago, the Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE are also known, held large swaths of Sri Lanka's north and east, roughly corresponding to the crescent-shaped Tamil homeland – Tamil Eelam – for which the rebels have fought since 1983. Only months ago, the Tigers still held the island's north, their stronghold, in a viselike grip.

But by the week's end, there were only a few square kilometers of Tiger territory left – encircled by a vast-advancing Army. Senior Tiger leaders were reported to be surrendering. And in Colombo, the capital, talk had turned to what would happen when the fighting was finished.

"The war will be over very soon," says Jehan Perera, a leading commentator and director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group. Though he, like many, expects the surviving rebels to attempt "some spectacular acts of terrorism," he believes that as a fighting force the Tigers are "effectively finished."

Echoing this view is Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, better known as Colonel Karuna, the former head of the Tigers in the east, whose defection to the government side in 2004 contributed largely to the Army's recent military successes.

In an interview in his heavily fortified Colombo headquarters, Mr. Muralitharan, now the new minister for national integration and reconciliation, predicted that once the Tigers' leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed – "and he will not surrender, he will have to be eliminated" – the Tigers would be too weak to regroup with any strength.

But while the Tigers may be close to dead, the cause that sustained their long fight is not.

Brutal Tiger tactics

The Tigers are a murderous guerrilla outfit who have terrorized the very Tamils they claim to represent. They have recruited civilians, including small children and, in recent days, according to numerous reports, used people trapped in their last sanctuary as human shields. But brutal as the Tigers are, their campaign has been sustained by a bitter ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese that will not end with the war.

Sri Lanka's mostly Hindu Tamils have suffered decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which today is most obvious in the allocation of government jobs and university slots. The island's police force, for example, is almost entirely Sinhalese.

For Tamils aggrieved by such treatment, the way in which the war against the Tigers has been executed will have made matters worse.

An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in the island's long conflict, but the recent push to finish off the Tigers has resulted in an especially heavy human cost among the Tamils of the north.

This week, the UN estimated that 6,400 civilians had been killed in this year alone, and some 14,000 people injured. The government has also been widely accused of human rights abuses against Tamils, including the abduction and murder of hundreds of young Tamils in Colombo.