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With the war over in Sri Lanka, the battle shifts to the political arena

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Colombo — Outside in the streets, the celebration was loud as thousands of Sri Lankans waved flags and cheered Wednesday to mark an impromptu national holiday after the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the bloody end of a 26-year civil war.

But inside, behind ranks of guards cradling machine guns, there was a more quiet, purposeful sort of celebration.

At the head of a long, cluttered desk, cabinet minister Douglas Devananda reached into a small heap of cellphones to field a constant string of calls, most of them congratulatory, some involving detailed discussions of strategy.

With the shooting war over in Sri Lanka, the battle shifts to the political arena, with many, including a number of international leaders, hoping for reconciliation between the two sides and a significant number of Tamils frankly skeptical that the Sinhalese majority will ever allow them to flourish.

Mr. Devananda, a big, silver-bearded man of 51, is a Tamil, one of very few members of the linguistic minority in a government heavily dominated by the island's Sinhalese-speaking, Buddhist majority.

Unlike most urban Tamils, who stayed home Wednesday out of dismay at the huge loss of Tamil lives or fear of the government, he was in an effusive mood and sees the defeat of the ethnic-nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a great opportunity for his people – and for his political future.

“This is finally the moment for all the Tamils to come over to our side and to be welcomed back into the government of Sri Lanka,” he said between calls. It was, he conceded, an unlikely optimism, as the world's attention was focused on the 250,000 Tamils trapped in internment camps and the corpses of an estimated 7,000 others being removed from the battlefield.

Until he was slain by the army on Monday, the main political figurehead for Sri Lankan Tamils was Velupillai Prabhakaran, the military strongman who commanded the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During their 26-year civil war, Mr. Prabhakaran had kept most of the island's two million Tamils inside an isolated proto-state ruled with authoritarian discipline.

Whether most Tamils actually supported his rigid, Stalinist politics, or simply went along because they had no other options, is a matter of grave debate today.

Mr. Devananda has a major stake in that debate. A former fighter with Mr. Prabhakaran's Tigers, he defected in the 1980s to form the Eelam Peoples' Democratic Party, known by its initials EPDP.

His party argues for a different future for the besieged Tamils: Rather than national separation, legal equality; rather than a violent freedom struggle, a political civil-rights struggle. He is betting his party's future on his belief that most Tamils always preferred this option.

“I think more than 98 per cent of the Tamil community living in Sri Lanka, they want peace with dignity within a united Sri Lanka,” he said. “Prabhakaran, he prevented this from happening, he wouldn't allow people to ask for it. The people living under the LTTE, they wanted to come over to this side, but had no way. Now that obstacle is gone.”

His politics are a return to the civil-rights movement that began the Tamil struggle in the 1950s. When the island was a British colony known as Ceylon, the Tamils had been the ruling elite ethnic group; during the post-colonial years, members of the Sinhalese majority thrust them out of power, jobs and schools, and tried to outlaw their language.

What should have been a major civil-rights movement metamorphosed into a mildly nationalist one that was seized by Mr. Prabhakaran and turned into something more extreme. Mr. Devananda and his followers believe that things will now slowly return to a call for the sort of ethnic-pluralist government that India re-elected this week.

His hopeful words did little to mask an increasingly grave situation. Most Tamils, their homes laid waste and their communities decimated by the war, are angry and disillusioned, more likely to turn to new forms of violence and rebellion than to embrace the political mainstream.

That situation might change if Tamils were welcomed into the fold of mainstream Sri Lankan society and politics and given the humanitarian support they need to re-establish their lives. But the coalition government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in which Mr. Devananda is the Social Services Minister, has been accused of doing little to welcome the Tamils back, and much to marginalize them.

Mr. Rajapaksa did deliver a brief address in the Tamil language Wednesday – extremely rare for a Sri Lankan leader – which was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation. But it offered nothing concrete to bring Tamils back, even as his government was being criticized internationally for driving Tamils away.

Military officials have said that some of the homeless Tamils could be kept in the internment camps for as long as two years in order to separate out any LTTE terrorists from the wounded and malnourished families.

Aid and humanitarian agencies lodged complaints Wednesday that they have been denied access to most of the camps. The Red Cross said it has given up trying to deliver medicine and supplies to the camps, after its people have been kept away since May 9. The United Nations said all of its agencies, including the High Commission for Refugees and Unicef, have been kept out of the largest camps.

Even the celebrations Wednesday, and many of the government's posters and billboards featuring prominent images of Mr. Rajapaksa and slogans such as “I made this happen and I will rebuild our nation,” were heavily laden with Buddhist imagery, with few efforts to include Tamils – most of whom are Hindu or Christian – or non-Buddhists in the message.

“Rather than talking in Tamil, he should be taking to Tamils,” said Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of the Tamil-language daily newspaper Sudaroli. “But this government is not in the mind to say things that might make the Tamils feel welcome. It wants to treat us like terrorists and criminals, and deprive us of our language and our homeland.”

Mr. Vithyatharan, who views Mr. Devananda as a traitor to the separatist cause, has reason to complain about the government: In February, he was picked up, jailed and abused for a day by government agents who accused him of terrorism. After a review, he was cleared of all charges.

In private, members and supporters of Mr. Devananda's EPDP party admit that the government is doing them no favours with its harsh and often willfully abusive treatment of the northern Tamils.

Even he concedes that something dramatic needs to be done, and quickly, to prevent Tamils from being alienated permanently, amid neglect, disease and injury. “We need to have some major gestures and some announcements of big projects soon,” he said, “but I am confident we will.”

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