What Next for Sri Lanka's 2.5 Million Tamils?

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Eranga Jayawardena / AP

An image of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa watches over a street in Colombo on May 21, 2009, days after the government declared victory over the Tamil Tigers

The Sri Lankan national flag is everywhere in Colombo these days. In the last months of the Sri Lankan government's 26-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the national flag — a sword-bearing lion on a deep red field — was flown at rallies each time the Sri Lankan army gained ground against the LTTE. With the army now victorious and the LTTE's leadership — including the notorious Velupillai Prabhakaran — wiped out, every vehicle on the road, including the bicycles, seems to be flying a flag, sometimes two or three.

But not everyone is feeling the nationalist euphoria. The island's 2.5 million ethnic Tamils, who have long felt discriminated against by the nation's Sinhalese majority — are no closer to a political agreement with the Sri Lankan government than when the war began in the 1980s. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is at the peak of his popularity, but to be remembered as the man who truly brought peace to Sri Lanka, he will have to reach a political consensus — quickly — with a shattered, fractured Tamil minority while responding to increasing international pressure over the tactics used to win a war that, according to the United Nations, saw a large number of civilian deaths in its final weeks. (Watch TIME's video "Civilians Caught in Sri Lankan Civil War.")

Rajapaksa struck a reconciliatory note when he addressed the nation on May 19, a few hours before state TV channels beamed images of Prabhakaran's body. Rajapaksa opened his speech with a few sentences in Tamil and told parliament that he would take care of the Tamils and not let military victory lead to discrimination. "He made all the right remarks," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank. "A lot now will depend on what kind of power-sharing proposals are put on the table."

The baseline for any discussion of power-sharing is the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka's constitution. It was ratified in 1987 after the intervention of India, Sri Lanka's powerful neighbor. The amendment set up regional provincial councils that were supposed to give more power to the Tamil majority north and east. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama admits that the 22-year-old law has failed to live up to its promise. "It remains unimplemented in its totality," Bogollagama says, so the government is ready to go beyond it. "The President has already said that we are willing to go 13 plus 1."

What Rajapaksa is offering today is an absolute minimum, according to some Tamil politicians who have long clamored for more than just regional councils. They want autonomy over land, natural resources and police powers — demands that go far beyond the concessions of the 13th Amendment. "It was something that came into being 20 years back. Times have changed; situations have changed. We have to take all that into account," says veteran Tamil politician V. Anandasangaree, the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).

Without the LTTE, there is a vacuum on the Tamil side of the negotiating table. Throughout the war, Tigers insisted that they were the only legitimate voice of Sri Lankan Tamils and ruthlessly eliminated their political opponents. The government has refused to negotiate with what's left of the Tigers and will instead try to use the All Party Representative Committee to reach a consensus with the civilian Tamil parties that remain. Most of those are willing to unite and negotiate with the government, but it will not be easy. With 22 out of 225 seats, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has the largest Tamil representation in parliament, but it has been closely aligned with the Tigers, undermining its credibility. "There was no difference between the TNA and the Tigers," says Vinayagamorthi Muralitharan, alias "Karuna," the former Tiger military commander who broke ranks with Prabhakaran in 2004 and is now a minister in Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party. "What the Tigers said, the TNA did." Some consider Karuna's defection the beginning of the Tigers' losing battle. (See pictures inside Sri Lanka's rebel-held territory.)

TNA leaders are already positioning themselves as hard-liners whose goals are in step with the Tigers' long fight for an independent Tamil homeland."We do not know what the other Tamil parties are up to, or what they are looking for," says Suresh Premachandran, a senior member of Parliament with the TNA. "However, if they too are looking for a solution that gives greater autonomy to the northeast, then we have no problem in holding discussions with the Tamil parties. There must be a radical change in the constitution. Both the north and east should be merged and should be given a greater autonomy with more powers."

Forming a large, semi-autonomous region by merging the newly conquered north with the eastern provinces — parts of which include Sri Lanka's Tamil majority areas and have been, at times, under Tiger control — is unlikely given the growing instability in the east. The eastern provinces have been under the government's control since 2007. Elections were held there in 2008 and the provinces have been held up as a model for what Rajapaksa's government hopes to do for the former Tiger-controlled areas in the north. But peace in the east has proved to be extremely fragile. The political leadership has already split into two feuding factions, and human rights groups are worried that violence involving former Tigers, military and paramilitary forces can erupt without any notice.

There is also mounting international pressure on the government to deliver on its promises of power-sharing and to restore the civil liberties that have been suspended during the war. "Bold actions are needed now to share power and to assure all of Sri Lanka's communities a future of hope, respect and dignity," outgoing U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake said in his remarks on May 20 before leaving Sri Lanka to become Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. "Through such actions, a truly united Sri Lanka can emerge — a Sri Lanka that is rooted in democracy and tolerance, where human rights are respected, where media can operate freely and independently." Human rights advocates say that the arrests — one day after the army declared victory over the LTTE — of three Tamil doctors who gave information to the media about civilian casualties is a reminder that Sri Lanka is still far from that ideal. (Read "Behind Colombo's P.R. Battle Against The Tamil Tigers.")

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon landed in Sri Lanka late in the evening of May 22 and said at the end of his 24-hour visit that the first step toward rebuilding the devastated north is restoring displaced people to their homes. More than 260,000 Tamil civilians from the north are being held in camps run by the government authorities, and unless they can return, elections there will be meaningless. Rajapaksa had pledged to Ban that 80% of those displaced by the fighting in Sri Lanka's north would be resettled within this year. "The challenges facing the government are huge," Ban warned. "If issues of reconciliation and social inclusion are not dealt with, history could repeat itself."

The 800,000-strong Tamil diaspora, meanwhile, is pushing to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for what happened during the war. Canada and the U.K., home to the two largest communities of expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils, backed a proposal brought before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to discuss possible violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. Sri Lanka was widely criticized because of the large number of civilian casualties — at least 8,000 this year, according to the UN — and for the severe restrictions being placed on civilians in the government-run camps. Sri Lanka mustered the support of 12 allies, including India and China, against the proposal. "There is no question of violations or war crimes," Bogollagama says, indicating that Sri Lanka will continue its aggressive resistance to any accusations of human rights violations.

Few expect the LTTE to ever return as a fighting force. Still, it has not completely disappeared. Some remnants — maybe a few dozen — are hiding in the eastern jungles and could regroup in some form among Tamil diaspora communities in Canada, the U.K., Australia or the U.S. The leadership of the organization has fallen on Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the former Tiger chief arms procurer, who is believed to be in Malaysia. Pathmananthan acknowledged for the first time on May 24 that Prabhakaran was dead, but insisted that the deceased leader's dream of eelam, a separate Tamil homeland, lives on. "His final request was for the struggle to continue until we achieved the freedom for his people."

See TIME's pictures of the week.