It is 10 years since the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam decisively, ending a long and violent chapter in the history of the island nation, one that India was drawn into for a full decade, first on the side of the LTTE, and then against them. The LTTE started off as an insurgency in response to the failure of the country’s dominant Sinhala-Buddhist leadership to accommodate Tamil political aspirations. In their quest for an independent Eelam, the Tigers built themselves into a formidable fighting machine that conscripted children and used human shields, as well as a ruthless terrorist group that, with the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, introduced the world to suicide bombs. By the time its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed at the end of the war on May 18, 2009, it had lost all political purpose and had rejected every chance at a peaceful settlement. Prabhakaran had turned it into a cult of the leader. Over three decades, he led the Tamil people into four self-serving “Eelam Wars”, for which they paid the heaviest price.
Rid of the LTTE, Sri Lanka could have been magnanimous in its military victory and made efforts to heal the wounds of the Tamil community by addressing immediate post war issues, including accountability in the Sri Lankan forces. Instead, unfazed by international censure, it gave in to a triumphal Sinhala-Buddhist militarism, fanned by the Rajapaksa clan that saw this as the way to perpetuate its own power. President Rajapaksa’s 2014 electoral comeuppance was supposed to be Sri Lanka’s new dawn. The militarism wound down immediately, and in its first few months, the unlikely coalition of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, seemed ready to do what it would take towards political reconciliation and accountability, including a list of commitments to the UN Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, their bickering with each other ensured that some of those steps remain implemented on paper only, while constitutional reform to address the Tamil political question is stuck.
The Easter bombings, claimed by the ISIS and carried out by what so far seems like an ISIS inspired local group, have rudely destroyed whatever recovery Sri Lanka had managed to make. The aftermath of the attacks that killed more than 250 people have cracked wide open new ethnic faultines that might have been addressed if the Sri Lankan polity had taken the task of nation-building and constitutional reform after the war as a serious and urgent project. That the top two leaders of the country are still engaged in a game of one-upmanship with each other inspires little confidence.