May 4, 2009
The last stand of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger insurgents appears to be nearing its horrific end. Reduced to a sandy strip no bigger than New York's Central Park, the Tigers seem intent on fighting to the last man, woman and child. Disastrously, the Sri Lanka army has obliged the Tiger's death wish by indiscriminately firing heavy artillery into the strip, littering the area with bodies and body parts. The United Nations says that more than 6,400 civilians have been killed in the fighting since late January.

One might think that no one would shed a tear for the insurgents, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It was the first group to make suicide bombings their trademark. It assassinated numerous civilian officials and pro-peace politicians, and perhaps thousands of ethnic Tamils who didn't support their cause. In areas under their control, the Tamil Tigers ruled with an iron fist, torturing opponents, preventing a free press, and inducting thousands of children into their forces, often for front-line duty.

But support for the Tamil Tiger cause remains strong for many Tamils in Sri Lanka and among the large Tamil diaspora, most of whose families fled the country because of government abuses. Many get their information from Tiger propaganda sources. But the Tamil minority has genuine grievances against the Sinhalese-dominated government that have long gone unaddressed. While the LTTE was never the "sole representative" of Sri Lanka's Tamils, as the group has long claimed, it was often the only voice Tamils heard. And the grievances won't disappear just because the Tamil Tigers do.

Instead of addressing Tamil concerns about governance, property rights, and civil liberties, the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has only heightened them, pandering to the most nationalistic Sinhalese elements in society. Several Tamil politicians and journalists have been murdered and others have been prosecuted on dubious political grounds. And while the threat of Tamil Tiger attack justifies security precautions, all too often they have meant that ordinary Tamils are subjected to indefinite detention without trial, "disappearances," and summary execution.

Even if the Tamil Tigers are defeated on the battlefield, few believe that their bombings and assassinations will end. It should be obvious to the Rajapaksa government that the way the war is fought - and concluded - will have a huge impact on the aftermath. Unfortunately, the government thus far has demonstrated little interest in promoting a genuine multi-ethnic Sri Lanka in which the rights of all its citizens are respected.

The United States, which has been outspoken on human rights in Sri Lanka since the Bush administration, should work with other influential governments, notably India, the European Union and Japan, to press for a long-term agenda that truly brings an end to the country's ethnic conflict.

First, Colombo needs to put its military commanders under tight control. The terrible civilian casualties of recent weeks are a huge cause for concern, but so is the danger that suspected LTTE fighters, many of whom were forcibly recruited, will be subject to serious abuses. After government forces took the rebel stronghold of Jaffna in 1995, some 500 people "disappeared." Were it to prosecute both government and LTTE commanders responsible for war crimes, the government would be making a crucial statement about justice in a future Sri Lanka.

Second, the government should stop treating all Tamils fleeing the war zone, including entire families, as captured combatants. They have been placed in so-called "welfare centers" - in reality, detention camps. Humanitarian agencies are obviously reluctant to provide assistance that will further the indefinite lock-up of these displaced civilians. While meeting legitimate security concerns, the government needs to allow freedom of movement of the displaced population, some 200,000 people, and plan for their prompt return to their homes.

Finally, the government should plan ahead for real democracy in former LTTE-controlled areas. After it "liberated" the eastern region a year ago, control of the area was effectively put in the hands of an abusive former Tamil Tiger force. Sri Lanka's Tamil population includes many well-educated people who have long criticized the LTTE for its murderous ways, and often paid the price in lost lives. They should be part of a new, democratic resurgence in former LTTE areas.

The current government is unlikely to take up these initiatives on its own. The United States and other concerned states have an important role to play in Sri Lanka's future. Otherwise the bloody fighting on the sandy strip will not be marking the end of the current war, but sowing the seeds of the next one.

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