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Sri Lankans Ponder Life After Wartime


With the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka apparently coming to an end, many in this Indian Ocean island are starting to ponder what's next.

In the busy seaside capital of Colombo, the local newspapers are focused on the latest news from the front lines. But more and more the headlines are about plans for reconstruction and development projects in Sri Lanka.

But still the tourists who once filled the country's five-star hotels, sushi restaurants and high-end shops for jewelry and clothes are no longer coming. Most people here blame the war that, they say, has dragged on way too long. Most people are eager for it to end.

Winning the war in one thing, analysts say, but bringing unity to Sri Lanka is another. Unity in Sri Lanka means closing the divide between the country's Sinhalese majority, which are mainly Buddhist, and its minority ethnic Tamil communities, which are mainly Hindu.

That something that cannot be fixed militarily, says Robert Blake, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. He says the task is made even harder by the fact that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, has strong backing from Tamils living abroad.

"The point we've made to the government is that once they occupy all the territory in the north, which should be a matter of weeks or less, that will not end the LTTE because the LTTE still has a large number of guerillas underground that will continue to rely on the support of the Tamil diaspora," Blake said. "So it will be very important for the government to come forward with a package of political proposals that will really ensure the Tamils of Sri Lanka a position of dignity and respect, and give them some measure of local autonomy in the areas in which they predominate."

The Sri Lankan government has been trying to maintain a fine balance: it wants to root out the last of the Tamil rebels while simultaneously extending a hand of peace and reconciliation to the Tamil community.

"If you are going to win hearts and minds, reconcile and unite, how you bring this war to a conclusion is going to be key," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives.

He says the Tamil hardliners will likely try to capitalize on the government's inability or unwillingness to give the Tamil community the dignity and autonomy that they have fought for.

Suresh Premachandran is a member of parliament who represents the Tamil community. He says the government needs to tackle the distrust and ethnic strife between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, especially in the war-battered north.

"The Tamil community does not have any trust in the Sinhala government. They can finish off the LTTE, but there is no political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem," he says.

If Sri Lanka's government has its way, the war will be over within days. But trying to convince people like Premachandran that their voices are not only heard but welcomed - that could take a while.

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