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Sri Lanka Appeals to Citizens Living Abroad to Return, Help Rebuild


With Asia's longest-running war drawing to a close, analysts say the next big hurdle is convincing Sri Lankans who fled abroad that it is time to come home. But that is exactly what Sri Lanka's government is setting out to do.

In his National Day speech, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke on themes of peace, amnesty and unity, as the country's conflict appears to be ending. He urged Sri Lankans abroad, including many ethnic Tamils who fled the fighting, to come back home and help rebuild their country.

It is yet another sign that, more and more, Sri Lankans are looking ahead at life after wartime in a country besieged by a quarter century of armed conflict between Sri Lankan troops and ethnic Tamil rebels. The rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the northern tip of this Indian Ocean island.

Is government prepared to tackle grievances?

With the likely defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka's government must show that it is prepared to tackle the grievances of the country's minority Tamils. That is according to Ravi Karunanayake, a member of Sri Lanka's parliament and a top Sinhalese opposition party leader, representing many within the Tamil community.

"Each government had its own style and, for some reason or another, it has not been successful," said Karunanayake. "Now, just because there is a military success does not mean the root cause is eradicated. That needs to be tackled in a much more dexterous manner."

Like others here, Karunanayake is skeptical about the ability of the government, made up mainly of Sinhalese Buddhists, to reach out to the minority Tamil community, which is mainly Hindu.

But some here say Mr. Rajapakse's government is sincere in its effort to address Tamil grievances, including the fact that most government workers do not know Tamil, one of the country's official languages.

"We have to now see this as a great opportunity for a program of reconciliation and promotion of co-existence. And, we have to address the Tamil grievances that have been a root cause of this civil war," said Kumar Rupasinghe, chairman of the Foundation for Co-Existence, a non-governmental agency. "We have to basically ensure that the Tamil language is fully implemented in the administration, in the courts and in the police. And, that there is legislation to punish people who promote racism against any other community."

Government extends olive branch to Tamils

So far, the government says it is offering amnesty and job training to many Tamil rebels who surrender. It is hiring hundreds of Tamil-speaking police officers. It is offering financial bonuses for government workers who enroll in Tamil language classes. It is planning reconstruction and development projects in the north, where Tamils are in the majority.

Still, some analysts say one of the biggest setbacks to forging a more Tamil-friendly government is that many politically moderate voices within the Tamil community have been silenced by the LTTE, which has been single-minded in its separatist agenda.

"The LTTE has had lethal success in eliminating all moderate alternatives in the Tamil community to the LTTE," said Robert Blake, the American ambassador to Sri Lanka. "So there are very few moderate Tamils left to represent the Tamil people and that makes it difficult to forge a consensus on the way forward."

He says the Sri Lankan government should try to talk to the few Tamil leaders who are left that do not represent the LTTE, as well as Tamils from the diaspora.

For now, the government seems to be laying out the welcome mat, but many here say it is still too early to tell whether the estimated two million Sri Lankans living abroad, especially Tamils, feel it is safe enough to return home.

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