Leading article: Offer the hand of reconciliation

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The Independent Online

Last year Sri Lanka's hardline President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, shook the international community by abandoning the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the rebel Tamil Tigers and declaring that only outright military victory could ensure peace for the island. A year later, he seems to be close to his ambition.

Having taken the Tamil Tiger redoubts of Jaffna and Kilinochi this winter, government forces now claim to have stormed the group's last redoubt of Mullaitivu and are attempting to corner the remnants of the rebel army in the jungles of Sri Lanka's north-east. Barring some extraordinary reversal of fortune, the Sinhalese armed forces should be in complete control of the island by their avowed aim of April, ending a three-decade-old war that has cost the country some 70,000 lives, many of them civilians, and crippled much of its economy.

If President Rajapaksa is now close to military victory, it is partly because of the money he has thrown into re-equipping his forces. But he has also undoubtedly been helped by support from India, which has acted to curb supplies for the Tamil Tigers from the mainland, and the wider international community, which has acted to shut down foreign funding of the Tigers.

Military victory does not ensure peace, however. Aside from the possibility of resurgent terror and a continuation of guerrilla activity (at which the Tamil Tigers have shown themselves adept) in a country desperately dependent on tourism and foreign investment, there remain all the underlying problems of the minority Tamils and Muslims. As a terror group the Tamil Tigers have at times been notoriously brutal in their methods and careless of civilians in their aims. But reinforcing them has been a very real sense of marginalisation and suppression among Tamils.

The recent assassination of one newspaper editor and attacks on journalists critical of the government and its handling of this war are signs of just how authoritarian the Sinhalese nationalist factions have become. Military victory now may make them even less wiling to offer the hand of reconciliation than ever. If that proves the case, success in the field will not bring peace but merely a resentful pause in the conflict.