Some Tamils wary of Sri Lankan leader's outreach

The president promised the ethnic minority 'equal rights' during a victory speech Tuesday.

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa addresses the nation in the parliament in Colombo Tuesday. "We have totally liberated the country from Tamil Tiger terrorism. Now we have established our rule in the entire country," he said.

Mariasoosai Sakkariyas was glued to his television Tuesday as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa reached out to Tamils during a speech marking the end of a 26-year war against Tamil separatists.

"Protecting the Tamil-speaking people of this country is my responsibility," said Mr. Rajapaksa, who switched briefly to the Tamil language during his address to Parliament. "That is my duty. All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights. That is my aim. Let us all get together and build up this nation."

But Mr. Sakkariyas wasn't impressed. He and his family fled Sri Lanka 29 years ago in a flimsy boat across choppy waters to Tamil Nadu state in southeastern India. He longs for the day he can return to his homeland.

"I will only return if there is evidence that all Tamils displaced by the recent fighting are rehabilitated, and are given a free, democratic space to exist," he says. "I don't want to return to a forced democracy where Tamils have no voice."

Sakkariyas's skepticism hints at the uphill battle Sri Lanka faces in achieving political reconciliation now that the conventional phase of the war between the military and Tamil rebels has ended.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had fought for a separate homeland for the island's Tamil ethnic minorities.

Some Tamils in Sri Lanka also viewed Rajapaksa's conciliatory tone warily.

"If the president's speech had announced a tangible political package for Tamils, I would be a million times happier," says Chris Kamalendaran, a Colombo-based reporter of Tamil origin, adding that other Tamils he had spoken with echoed his dismay that the president didn't offer a more concrete political vision.

"After 26 bloody years, the conflict is over – that's great," continues Mr. Kamalendaran, noting that he had never supported the LTTE. "But the cause of the conflict still persists."

Indeed, resentment between Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority (who make up 18 percent of the population) and the Sinhalese majority (74 percent) stretches back decades.

The Sri Lankan government has always dismissed the LTTE as nothing more than a "terrorist problem," says Narayan Swamy, a New Delhi-based journalist and author of a biography on LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom the military claimed to have killed on Monday.

The problem goes much deeper than the Tigers, he says. "The LTTE did not begin the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the conflict gave birth to LTTE."

P. Radhakrishnan, a Tamil politician and a deputy minister in Rajapaksa's government, offers a more optimistic take on Sri Lanka's future. He hails the president's message as a "confidence-building speech."

Even though the president did not spell out any details in his speech, he says, the Sri Lankan government is serious about building an inclusive society with equal rights for Tamils.

The end of the war could allow Tamil politicians to work more actively to improve conditions for the Tamil community, Mr. Radhakrishnan says in a phone interview.

So far they "have not played an active role" in this, he acknowledges. "Maybe that's because the environment wasn't conducive for productive work for Tamils," referring to the decades-long war. "But I am hopeful that will change now that the war is over."

A glimpse of what political setup might emerge lies in the nation's eastern province. This region was reclaimed by the government in mid-2007, a few years after the LTTE commander in the area, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, better known as Col. Karuna Amman, defected to the government side.

In 2008, three eastern districts went to the polls with a 60 percent turnout. The government sought $1.8 billion in international aid to rebuild the province and bring investment and tourists to the region. Since then roads have been paved and villages are being connected to the power grid. Cellphone service providers are swamping the region.

But A. Soosaithasan, the proprietor of a security agency in the town of Batticaloa says "little has changed." Abductions and killings continuing to haunt the region. Families still prefer to send their children overseas, if they have the means, he says in a phone interview.

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