The Sri Lankan government is on the brink of victory in its quarter-century-long conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels. But it is also in grave danger of squandering the chance to establish a peaceful political settlement between the majority Sinhalese community and the island's Tamil minority.
An estimated 200,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the narrow strip of land still controlled by the rebels in the north-east of the country. Reports are emerging from the territory of 40 civilians dying daily and hundreds being injured in clashes between the Tigers and the military. The Red Cross has warned of a humanitarian crisis as feeding the displaced population becomes increasingly difficult.
The Tamil rebels cannot escape blame for this suffering. Credible reports have emerged of the Tigers using civilians as human shields. But the Colombo government, having pushed the rebels back into a small pocket of land, is unquestionably in control. And it is showing precious little concern to minimise civilian casualties as it pushes for outright military victory.
The lockdown of the rebel-held area has made it difficult for Tamils to flee the regions of intense fighting. The military has established "safe zones" for civilians, but these have come under shell fire. The military also wants to set up compounds to detain civilians that bear an ominous similarity to concentration camps. There is talk of holding civilians for several years in such facilities while the army ensures that the Tiger threat is finally extinguished.
Depressingly, such excesses appear to have been driven not by an over-mighty military, but by the civilian administration in Colombo. President Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned four years ago on a hard-line platform of rejecting any concessions to the Tamils and overturning the peace process. His government has relentlessly stoked Sinhalese nationalism ever since. This was the insidious trend that the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickramatunge, identified so powerfully in an article penned shortly before his murder.
No criticism is tolerated in Colombo, however. The government's angry response this week to our own Government's nomination of Des Browne as a special envoy to the country is an indication that the Sinhalese authorities are in no mood to listen to the opinions of outsiders on how it should prosecute this war. International calls for a ceasefire have been ignored too.
Restraint is nevertheless firmly in the interests of the Sinhalese government. When the Tigers have been defeated, the Sinhalese will have to live side by side with their Tamil neighbours. The more violence is visited on innocent civilians now, the harder the process of reconciliation will be. A military occupation of the north and the east can never deliver the security that both sides in this conflict deserve.
Ultimately, the solution to the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils can only be political. Tamils need political equality and access to jobs. The long-running discrimination that fuelled this conflict must end. Some degree of political autonomy, short of independence, for the Tamil-dominated regions would also be sensible.
Yet at the moment the Sri Lankan government is behaving as if it can solve this conflict purely through force of arms. The defeat of the loathsome Tigers ought to be an opportunity. But the victorious Sinhalese are instead sowing the seeds of more hatred and continued division on the island of Sri Lanka.