Sri Lankan Government Savors Victory While Tamils Ponder Future

20 May 2009

Sri Lankans showcase their national flags as they celebrate the military victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Sri Lankans celebrate the military victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo, 20 May 2009
The defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the rebel group's leader, seemed to deepen the sense of confusion felt by many in Sri Lanka's Tamil population. What's next for them?

A group of children in the capital have gathered around this effigy of slain Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Like many in this Indian Ocean capital, they are celebrating his death with cheering, flag waving and fireworks. But in other parts of the city, the change in mood is stark, as many Tamils discreetly mourned Prabhakaran and the passing of an era that he represented.

Fear and uncertainty

Jeya Balathura, 32, is a former aid worker. Her mother and sister escaped the war-rattled north to live with her in Colombo.

"We are fearing," she said. "What are we going to do? We don't know. Maybe Tamil people are going to face big problems. We don't know."

Balathura's sense of uncertainty is widespread in the Tamil community. With Prabhakaran gone, many are asking who is left to champion the cause of the Sri Lanka's more than three million ethnic Tamils, including the estimated 300,000 Tamils crowded into government-run camps in the island's north.

Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (File)
Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (File)
Prabhakaran was an almost mythical figure who fought for more than a quarter century for a separate Tamil homeland, a dream that some say has all but evaporated with Prabhakaran's death.


Lal Wickrematunge is the editor of one of Sri Lanka's largest independent newspapers. "Right now the euphoria is that the LTTE is vanquished and that's it. There is nothing beyond that," he said.

Wickrematunge says he is encouraged by the recent public speeches of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has pledged to share power with Tamil leaders in an effort to unite all Sri Lankans under one flag.

"The president has his work cut out," said Wickrematunge. "Of course, he's very, very popular right now. He's at the zenith of his popularity. He should use that to unite all communities and not even talk of ethnicity, but of rebuilding Sri Lanka."

Still, Wickrematunge doubts that Sri Lanka's government will follow through on its promise to address the grievance of the country's Tamil community, which includes a long list of civil and human rights abuses by Sri Lankan security forces, not to mention claims of widespread job discrimination at the hands of the island's Sinhala majority.

Wikrematunge's brother, Lasantha, the newspaper's former editor and an outspoken critic of the government, was killed earlier this year. His murder remains unsolved, but many here claim government security forces had a hand in his death.

Suresh Premachandran is a Tamil leader and a member of parliament. He says that for Tamils to feel empowered, there has to be a change in thinking at the top levels of government.

"We are the people who are elected democratically," said Premachandran. "Even when we start to speak in parliament, immediately all the people in the ruling part start to shout, 'You LTTE bugger' and things like that. They are not prepared to listen to us. The Sri Lankan government does not want to share the power with the Tamil people. That is the whole reason why this thing started."

Analysts here say the government must reach out to Tamil leaders like Premachandran if it expects to win the hearts and minds of Tamils here.

What now?

Lakshman Hulugalle (file photo)
Lakshman Hulugalle (file photo)
Lakshman Hulugalle, a Sri Lankan government spokesman, says that with the military phase of the conflict largely finished, the government is shifting its focus to the political phase.

"The future of the Tamils have to be equal to any other citizen," said Hulugalle. "In my personal view, we have to share. Power sharing should be there. Once the power sharing is equally given, the Tamil people can live happily and in harmony."

He says that the Tamil Tigers out of the picture, moderate voices within Tamil community can flourish. Before, moderate Tamil leaders feared for their lives for not kow-towing to the Tamil Tigers' all-or-nothing quest for a separate homeland.

For now, much of the focus is on the Tamil diaspora, which appears to be waging a public relations war against the Sri Lankan government at foreign embassies from around the world.

It was the Tamil diaspora that - either willingly or begrudgingly - financed the Tamil Tigers. Now, Sri Lanka's government wants them to lend a hand in rebuilding the country now that 26 years of fighting has come to an end.