Peter Popham: Absence makes the fight grow stronger

Some conflicts – Kashmir and Israel-Palestine, to name the most obvious – feel as if they will never end, as if the burden of violence and suffering and hatred must be handed down from generation to generation, like the blood feuds of Calabria. For many years the Sri Lankan civil war seemed to be like that. The authorities in Colombo never seemed able to summon the resolve to finish it.

Then this week, amid bloody mayhem, it was all over, and the generation-long dream of Sri Lanka's Tamils for an independent homeland ended in bitter defeat. The question the community confronts is, what next?

Do they bow to the inevitable and commit themselves to working with the Sinhalese and the island's other ethnic and religious groups to try to forge a future for the island to which all can subscribe? Or do they turn their backs again on the difficult challenges of democracy, gather up their cynanide capsules and suicide belts and regroup, waiting for the right moment to strike again and set off another cycle of violence?

The answer to that question depends on whether you are a Tamil of the diaspora in the West, or in the island itself.

For many in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, Velupillai Prabhakaran is alive and well, the tales of victory by the Sri Lankan army are Sinhalese propaganda and the resumption of the armed struggle is just a matter of time. The huge sums raised from the community abroad will fund the next war.

On the island itself, the situation is completely different. For many of Sri Lanka's Tamils, the figure of reference is not Prabhakaran but the brave, reforming Tamil politician Neelan Tiruchelvam – murdered on Prabhakaran's orders by a suicide bomber in 1999.

The tragedy for Tamils on the island is that practically all the politicians who offered alternatives to the blood and fanaticism of the Tigers have been similarly dealt with. Today the Tamils, hundreds of thousands of them, live side by side with the Sinhalese and the other communities – one-third of the population of Colombo, for example, is Tamil. The moment of military defeat should also be the moment for the community to pick itself up and start afresh. But new leaders will take years to emerge.

In the meantime the diaspora's mighty fundraising machine grinds on, regardless of the defeat, offering visions of revenge and glory which distract fatally from the urgent challenges at hand.