The Sri Lankan government's stunning defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was as swift as it was unusual in world history. Rarely has a government won so decisive a military victory against a long-running domestic armed group. However, this victory has come at a steep price. The regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse is now widely known to have been responsible for grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Besides, the political settlement of the Tamil question is still unresolved.
What's the way forward? First, the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhalese majority must avoid excessive triumphalism or a vindictive or vengeful attitude toward the Tamils. The celebrations on the streets that followed the news of defeat of the Tamil Tigers are understandable in the short term but need to be followed by real attention to the humanitarian and development needs of the displaced Tamil population. If the Sri Lankan government lacks expertise in this regard, it should ask for help and allow a multi-national team to assist, led by International Committee of the Red Cross and U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
Second, the political process for ensuring the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka must begin swiftly. The shattered political foundations of Tamil civic capacity need to be taken into account. An election in the Tamil-speaking areas is necessary but not sufficient for a political settlement. The provisions of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 envisioned a referendum to decide if the Eastern and Northern provinces should remain separate or united. Taking that as a cue, the fate of all Tamils in Sri Lanka needs to be now part of a comprehensive settlement.
Yet another provision of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord needs to be implemented swiftly, and that is to ensure that the Sri Lankan military is sent back to the barracks soon, before any electoral process gets under way. This alone can ensure a free and fair process that meets international standards. The best guarantee of all this is to have the U.N. or a multi-national conference assist Sri Lanka in the capacity of an honest third party. By itself, India cannot assume that role.
A third requirement is a sound constitutional process, which needs to be based on the principles of strong federalism - including devolution, respect for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and robust protections of minority rights to language, culture, education and religion. Any new political settlement needs to clearly articulate the guarantees of constitutional protection the rights of Tamils and Muslims.
A related but sensitive political issue is the question of reckoning with past abuses and the resulting resentments. These abuses have been committed by both sides, but the Sri Lankan government bears a special burden of accountability because a state always bears more responsibility for its conduct under international law and because it is, after all, the victor. If the conduct of the African Nationial Congress in South Africa is any moral guide, a more graceful way of winning the peace makes it much more sustainable.
Finally, reconstructing the war-shattered parts of Sri Lanka must be done without altering the ethnic balance on the ground and without exacerbating landlessness - already one of the main sources of tension. Taking the recent Indian election as a guide, the Sri Lankan government should see that people do vote for better and effective governance over the forces of division and extremism. That is the need of the hour in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka.
Balakrishnan Rajagopal, a resident of Rockville, is an associate professor of law and development and director of the MIT Program on Human Rights & Justice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His e-mail is email@example.com.