Page last updated at 03:23 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 04:23 UK

Winning the peace in Sri Lanka

By Anbarasan Ethirajan
BBC News

Supporters of the Tamil Tigers show solidarity with the rebels in London by painting their faces as tigers
Supporters of the Tamil Tigers abroad held new protest rallies on Monday

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict has almost ended after nearly three decades with the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers but the victorious government may still need to tackle other fronts, including finding a political solution to the long-standing Tamil issue.

Apart from the Tamil minority, the international community will be keenly observing the next moves of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which doggedly pursued its military objectives despite criticism from various quarters.

The dramatic events of recent weeks, including the annihilation of almost the entire senior Tamil Tiger (LTTE) leadership and the end of the military offensive, will no doubt increase the government's popularity in the majority-Sinhalese south. The military victory will be regarded as the crowning glory of President Rajapaksa's administration. But there are daunting tasks ahead.

The immediate challenge for the government is to resettle more than 250,000 people displaced by the war back in their homes in the north. At the moment, these people are housed in state-run camps with the help of aid agencies. There have been strong criticisms from human rights groups about the living conditions and the lack of freedom of movement in these "welfare camps".

"Any long delay in resettling these war-ravaged Tamil people will further alienate them," says Sri Lankan analyst DBS Jeyaraj.

"It will also attract international criticism over the government's motive in keeping these refugees in these camps beyond a reasonable period of time."

Appeal for generosity

The government says it needs to keep these civilians inside the camps under tight security in order to identify rebel fighters who might have escaped the war zone along with the fleeing Tamil population.

Velupillai Prabhakaran
Born November, 1954
1972: Founded Tamil New Tigers (TNT), forerunner of LTTE
Reputation as fearless and ruthless leader
Pioneered use of suicide bombings in guerilla warfare
Wanted in Sri Lanka and India

On the other hand, with the fall of the Tamil Tigers the government is under pressure to step up efforts to find a political solution to the decades-old Tamil issue.

The Tamils have been complaining that they have been treated like second-class citizens by the Sinhalese majority and that they need more autonomy for Tamil areas.

"Obviously the government of Sri Lanka has won the battle but has not won the peace," the Norwegian Minister for International Development, Erik Solheim, told the BBC.

"Everything will depend on whether they can prove leadership qualities in this situation."

Mr Solheim worked for 10 years with both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government and brokered a ceasefire deal in 2002.

"If the Sri Lankan government can show generosity in victory, give a substantial devolution of power to Tamil self-government in the north-east and create an inclusive state for the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims, then we may see a lasting solution to the Sri Lankan problem," he said.

But the Sri Lankan government says it is working on a political solution and it requires time to evolve a consensus among political parties in the south.

Hearts and minds

"Once the LTTE terrorism and fanaticism is eliminated, which is the case at the moment, the government will work hard with the other moderate Tamil political groups... to bring a practical, sustainable political solution that will satisfy the aspirations of every community," said the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in London, Sumith Nakandala.

1976 - LTTE formed
1983 - First attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels; start of 'First Eelam War'
Feb 2002 - Government and rebels sign ceasefire
2004 - 2008 - Violence mounts
Jan 2008 - Government pulls out of ceasefire agreement
Jan 2009 - Government captures Tigers' Kilinochchi headquarters
May 2009 - Government declares victory against Tigers

However, Tamils fear that now that the government has won the war, it may not feel the necessity to come out with far-reaching political reforms, which may trigger another round of Tamil dissent.

"The future depends to a great extent on how the Rajapaksa government reaches out to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people," says Mr Jeyaraj.

While the government may be focused on solving its problems domestically in coming months, dissatisfaction is brewing in Western capitals over the reportedly high number of civilian casualties in the Sri Lankan conflict.

The UN believes that nearly 7,000 civilians may have been killed and another 13,000 injured in the war since January. The government disputes these figures. Human rights groups blame both sides for the humanitarian suffering.

Now the European Union says it is appalled by the high number of civilian casualties, which include children.

EU foreign ministers have called for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes and human rights violations during the weeks of intense fighting between the army and the rebels.

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