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.
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.
On Friday, two top Indian officials met with Sri Lankan President Mahindra Rajapaksa to pressure him to stop the government offensive against the rebels. The government has disputed charges that there is a humanitarian crisis in the country's northeast.
After the Army bust into the Tigers' last sanctuary, designated a "no-fire zone" by the government, television images showed tens of thousands of exhausted civilians escaping, many of them with serious injuries. Although the government claims that the rebels bombed the area, many nongovernmental (NGO) workers claim that the violence came from the Army.
NGOs working in the area also report that the government camps that house those who have escaped from the war zone are crowded, poorly run, and running short on supplies. Doctors Without Borders says that there is little freedom of movement within the camps.
Indeed, the human cost of the war in the north has been so heavy that the usually reserved International Committee of the Red Cross has described the situation as "catastrophic." US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Sri Lanka had caused "untold suffering" in its military campaign against the Tigers. The same day, the UN Security Council asked the government to allow greater UN humanitarian access to up to 100,000 displaced people who had escaped the no-fire zone.
Many observers says that if the government is serious about bringing lasting peace to Sri Lanka, it must act quickly to help those refugees by giving them proper care in the camps, and then resettling them as quickly as possible.
But in the longer term, they say, some measure of devolution in the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka is now necessary.
"There has to be a political settlement," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives and a leading Tamil intellectual. "Otherwise, there is always the danger that, having won some sort of respite from the rebels, there will be new support for them."
President Rajapaksa has appointed an All Party Representative Committee to draw up plans for devolution in Tamil-dominated areas, but there are concerns that they will not be properly implemented.
The east of the island, from which the Tigers were chased by the Army in 2007, offers little encouragement over the prospects for devolution. A year ago, elections were held to elect a provincial council. But power has not yet been devolved to that council, and a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) alluded to "violence, political instability, and reluctance to devolve power to provincial administrations."
Nonetheless, even the government's harshest critics sound a hopeful note about Sri Lanka's opportunity now to forge a lasting peace that embraces both Sinhalese and Tamils.
"Before, we were stuck with a stalemate, with two sides just fighting it out," says Mr. Perera, himself Sinhalese. "Now, one of those sides has been eliminated. Now we must move forward – without Sri Lanka's Tamil population being left behind."