As Sri Lanka Savors Victory, Challenges of Reconciliation and Resettlement Loom

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 22, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, May 21 -- Every 15 minutes, Sri Lankan state television halts its normal programming to broadcast patriotic images of women in lush tea fields at sunrise, workers building power lines and troops standing guard, all accompanied by a soaring anthem in which a young beauty calls for the country's president to be crowned king.

On the streets of the capital, billboards proclaim, "King Mahinda Rajapaksa: He saved us," beneath a photograph of the president hugging his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's defense minister, and apparently glorying in the military victory that this week ended more than a quarter-century of war with the Tamil Tiger separatists.

"Everyone's heartbeat is just like my song and the billboards," said Saheli Rochana Gamage, 21, whose rendition of the anthem has made her a celebrity in this small Indian Ocean island nation. "He should be our president forever. We are happy with a king who can protect our country. Elections don't matter."

At a time when insurgencies elsewhere seem to be expanding, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Rajapaksa brothers were able to do what five Sri Lankan presidents, eight governments and more than 10 cease-fires could not: win a war against a movement that the FBI has called "the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world."

Despite the elation, however, the human cost of their accomplishment is also becoming clear: Power has been consolidated around a ruling family, a humanitarian crisis looms, and civil rights and media freedoms have been rolled back.

Perhaps the most pressing problem is the situation of more than 280,000 people, mostly Tamils, who have been driven from their homes in recent months, many of them traumatized women and children who were used as human shields or forced to huddle in trenches or the jungle during fighting. They are now living in crowded, highly controlled government-run camps, fenced in by barbed wire. Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads, many here say.

"Sri Lanka has won the war. But now they have to win the peace, which is a very difficult challenge," said Erik Solheim, Norway's minister for international development, who worked for 10 years with the warring parties and brokered a failed 2002 cease-fire. The government must make all communities feel they are Sri Lankans, he said.

"They also have to share local power in the north where many of the Tamils live," Solheim added. "The president will have to rise to the occasion. It's an enormous chance for him to do well or fail."

Human rights groups are especially concerned about a number of children allegedly abducted from the camps by pro-government Tamil paramilitary groups and questioned about links to the Tamil Tiger rebels, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The fate of many young Tamil Tiger fighters who surrendered to the armed forces is also unknown. The camps are closed to journalists and even Tamil political leaders.

Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the Defense Ministry's media center, declined to comment on the treatment of those accused of "terrorism" and defended sealing the camps to journalists.

"It's a private matter for Sri Lanka," Hulugalle said. "The problem here is terrorists fight like civilians. They dress like civilians. Just because they drop the gun doesn't mean they aren't terrorists."

Before a spike in suicide bombings following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Tigers reportedly carried out two-thirds of all such attacks in the world. India on Thursday marked the anniversary of the 1991 killing of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suspected Tiger female suicide bomber, apparently in revenge for his having sent a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka.


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