In its 62 years of independence, Sri Lanka has never had a better chance than it has now to stamp out the last fires of ethnic hatred, violence and mindless chauvinisms that have left over 80,000 people dead in civil wars across one of the most physically beautiful countries in Asia.
Tragically for all Sri Lankans, it looks as if its increasingly autocratic president, reelected in January on a surge of Sinhala triumphalism following the defeat of a Tamil rebel army, is determined to let this hopeful moment pass. Not only a lasting peace between the Tamils and Sinhalese is at stake but also the multiparty democracy that set the country apart from many of its neighbors.
Why should a descent into misgovernment in a nation of 21.3 million people on a relatively small island off the coast of India matter to people anywhere else? This isn't Zimbabwe or Bosnia or Haiti. Not yet. But it is one of the newest examples -- streamed live on the Web if not much present in the American media -- of a post colonial collapse. Kenya is another. It is a phenomenon worth study.
Sri Lanka was once the most advanced nation in South Asia by measures of human development. Literacy, education levels and social services are all still higher than in neighboring Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The country has no external enemies. Women have held high office for decades. There was a lively press and a functioning two-party system, albeit dominated by mostly people drawn from elite families.
Now journalists live in fear, are killed, disappear or flee. (The president has just named himself information minister, to make matters more menacing.) The leader of the opposition party who dared to challenge the incumbent in the January presidential election has been detained, so far without formal charges. The Tamils, who voted overwhelmingly for him, wait fearfully for the payback.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted all the credit for the defeat last year of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the death of its ruthless leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rajapaksa decisively defeated his opponent, the war hero Sarath Fonseka, in part because he was rewarded by Sinhala voters - who comprise more than two-thirds of the population -- for being the leader who made the country safe again.
The Tamil Tigers were a totalitarian movement that instilled terror with mass indiscriminate killing of civilians, and introduced suicide bombing to assassinate a generation of leaders, both Tamil and Sinhala.
Poor people were often the victims. They had to ride the vulnerable buses and stand in lines at government buildings or on train platforms that were always at risk of being blown up. Innocent Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus died. The Tigers assassinated numerous ministers and one president, and tried but failed to kill another. They murdered Tamils who questioned their tactics, among them the country's leading human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam, and a respected former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.
They also killed Rajiv Gandhi as he campaigned to regain the prime ministership in India in 1991. In 1987 he had reversed the Indian policy of using intelligence operatives to arm and train Tamils to keep the pro-Western Sri Lankan government off balance. Gandhi sent Indian peacekeeping troops to the island to disarm the Tigers, and made himself a marked man.
The Tigers were a heavily armed movement that never deserved the ill-informed sympathy it got outside Sri Lanka. Many Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims, a separate ethnic group descended from seafarers who crossed the Indian Ocean centuries ago, were trapped in the Tigers' grip and welcomed the end of fighting and oppression. Overseas, Tamils said they were coerced into giving money to support the war, and may still be as the rebels try to regroup. A very sophisticated public relations campaign told a compelling story that was never more than only partially true.
Tamils in Sri Lanka - both those in the north and another very different Tamil population in the central tea plantation country who never joined the militants - certainly had and still have serious grievances. Favored by British colonial administrators for their high education levels and linguistic skills, they aroused resentment among the Sinhalese. In 1956, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, adopted a chauvinist policy that made Sinhala the sole national language and gave prominence to Buddhism, practiced by the majority of the Sinhalese. (He was assassinated three years later by an enraged monk who thought the prime minister hadn't gone far enough.)
In the ensuing years, Tamil communities were attacked and hundreds of people were killed or had their property destroyed. There was a widespread feeling of marginalization, which persists, whatever the fate of the Tigers.
In this environment, a victorious Sinhala-led government in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, would be expected to take the opportunity to extend a magnanimous hand to the Tamils, especially in the north, if only to insure lasting peace. The Tamil cultural and historical capital, Jaffna, has been wantonly damaged by the Sri Lankan military and needs rebuilding both materially as well as in spirit. Tamil families struggling back to normal life after months in squalid detention camps set up after the war last spring lack many basic necessities.
The World Bank and United Nations offer help, but it is only occasionally and, some international aid workers say, grudgingly accepted. The Sinhalese have apparently persuaded themselves against all evidence that the outside world is against them. A Sri Lanka writer described this to me as a "majority with a minority complex."
Sri Lankans who deplore what is becoming of their country manage to keep hope alive. Fonseka, the defeated presidential candidate, has appealed to the courts for his release. A parliamentary election is coming. The institutions are still in place, at least for now.