One year on, Sri Lanka still divided
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGLAORE - A year ago this week, Sri Lanka's three-decade-long civil war was
formally declared over. What was once considered impossible happened: the
"militarily invincible" Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated,
with chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, his family and the LTTE's entire top brass
cornered and killed near the Nandikadal lagoon in the north of the island.
To mark its victory over the LTTE, the government is holding a victory parade
on May 20. Triumphalism among the majority Sinhala ethnic group, which has
surged throughout the past year, will climax this week. The celebrations have
But not everyone will be celebrating.
For the island's Tamils and a section of Sinhalese, this is a period of
mourning. Thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in the war-zone were killed in
this week last year as the fighting was in its last
stages. The Tamil diaspora will observe May 17-19 as "Days of Remembrance" and
May 18 as "Genocidal War Crimes Day".
Sustainable peace still seems a long way off. The Sinhala-Tamil divide remains
wide, with critics saying a a political solution to the ethnic conflict is not
on the government's agenda.
On the other hand, some say the government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa's
attention has been consumed with the presidential and legislative polls held in
the past year. Rajapaksa won the January presidential election and was the star
campaigner for his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in the parliamentary
election that followed.
The elections have strengthened the president's position significantly.
Rajapaksa defeated his nearest rival in the presidential election by a huge
margin, winning another six-year term. The parliamentary election too went in
Rajapaksa's favor, with the ruling coalition winning 144 seats in the
With three victories over the past year - the defeat of the LTTE, and the wins
at the presidential and parliamentary elections - Rajapaksa's position seems
unassailable. The opposition is in a state of disarray and former army chief
General Sarath Fonseka, Rajapaksa's presidential rival, is undergoing court
The president has been accorded a god-like status by his followers. His party
is not encumbered by ultra-nationalist parties as coalition allies as in the
past. Although he is six seats short of a two-thirds majority in parliament,
Rajapaksa is fully capable of engineering defections from the opposition. He is
in a good position to put in place the constitutional changes that are needed
for resolution of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict.
However, its unclear if he has the will to find a political solution.
Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother, wrote in a
recent article in the Sri Lankan English weekly newspaper, Sunday Times, that
he "sincerely believes priority should be given not to political reforms but to
infrastructure development and attending to other basic social needs of the
Sri Lankan analyst Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake has said that the Rajapaksa
regime's preferred solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka prefer is
economic - rapid development and reconstruction of the conflict-affected region
- rather than political.
"This would be along the lines of the authoritarian democracy visible in
countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where the state's emphasis on economic
development has trumped and muted ethno-religious identity conflicts," said
A task force headed by another brother of the president, Minister for Economic
Development Basil Rajapaksa, has been set up to oversee development in the
north, with companies from Colombo, India and China setting up shop. Banks,
finance companies, hotels and businesses dealing with consumer goods are
While the kick-starting of the economy in the north and the improvement of
north-south transport links have eased daily difficulties for the Tamils over
the past year, local Tamils are disappointed. They are not being hired. They
feel that they don't own the development happening around them and are being
relegated to being bystanders. The benefits of development are being reaped by
"outsiders" - the government, foreign companies and Sinhalese.
The Tamil group's alienation from the Sri Lankan state remains considerable,
indicating that economic development, while helpful, is not enough to resolve
the ethnic conflict. Analysts say that as Sri Lanka moves from a post-war to a
post-conflict era, it will need to find a political solution that involves
power sharing, as well as pursuing development that is equitable and inclusive.
They say the government needs to take decisive steps towards reconciliation.
While the government as seen as showing no appetite for a political solution,
its reconciliatory gestures are often seen as hollow. A fortnight ago, it
announced the setting up of a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation.
Few expect anything to come of it and Human Rights Watch has dismissed the
commission as "yet another attempt [by the government] to deflect an
independent international investigation" into allegations of war crimes by
government forces during the final phase of the fighting.
Few Tamils are impressed by Rajapaksa's promises of reconciliation, with many
saying there is scant reconciliation in what the government has been doing in
Tamil areas over the past year. For instance, they point to armed forces
systematically bulldozing LTTE cemeteries in the north as well as the homes and
offices of LTTE leaders, including those of Prabhakaran. The government has
also started erecting "victory monuments" commemorating at various locations in
This has the potential to spark anger against the state, since the fighters
buried in the cemeteries are also the relatives of the living. The graves
played an important role in the LTTE's building of a martyrs' cult, no doubt.
But they also helped many Tamils come to terms with their grief.
The government is reportedly building Buddhist shrines in the predominantly
Hindu north and building permanent housing for the families of the tens of
thousands of troops - overwhelmingly Sinhalese - who fought there. This has
underscored fears among Tamils that the government, alongside its military
occupation, is bent on altering the demography and religio-cultural identity of
"The regime needs to take urgent measures to alleviate the sense of alienation
felt by Tamils, a task that requires political action rather than
infrastructure development," wrote noted political commentator Tisaranee
Gunasekara. "The current Rajapaksa policy of treating the north as occupied
enemy territory should end. There should be a significant reduction in army
camps and army presence, as well as an end to what many Tamils seem to regard
as a state-sponsored religio-cultural invasion of the north by Sinhalese
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in