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Tamils Look to Quebec as a Possible Model for Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

May 25, 2009

The military defeat of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels and the killing of their remarkable leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has ended a major chapter of the island’s history. No doubt some Tigers are still alive and free, and they may be able to engage in terrorism and guerrilla warfare over the coming months and years, but their days of holding territory and fighting conventional battles seem to be well and truly over.

In the short term, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting, and will need to be fed, housed, and ultimately resettled. Large numbers of displaced Tamil civilians are apparently being held in camps by the authorities, and screened to root out any Tigers lurking in their midst. Canada has been active in pressing Sri Lanka to give international relief agencies full access to the camps, in which there seems to be no shortage of human misery, and earlier this year promised to distribute $3 million in aid to Sri Lanka through humanitarian NGOs.

I suspect, however, that attending to the needs of the displaced people will turn out to be the easy part in post-war Sri Lanka. The hard part will be effecting some kind of political reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, whose sense of exclusion and desire for an independent homeland in northeastern Sri Lanka was the driving force behind the war in the first place. The dream of an independent state called Tamil Eelam died this month under the guns of the Sri Lankan army, and is unlikely to be resurrected in the near future. Sri Lanka will remain one country.

With that understanding in place, however, the government does seem to be in a partly conciliatory mood. Sri Lanka’s Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, a man called Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, is a former Tamil Tiger commander who fought under the name Colonel Karuna before defecting in 2004. He is already promising to hold elections in the conflict zone, following resettlement of the displaced, and senior Indian politicians have been talking to President Rajapaksa about the need to devolve powers from the central government to the Tamil regions.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Tamils in Canada and elsewhere are looking to Quebec as an inspiring example of a culturally and linguistically distinct region that has managed to achieve a degree of autonomy. Many Canadians are used to seeing the relationship between the “two solitudes” of Quebec and the rest of Canada as fraught and problematic, marked by endless bickering and periodic threats of secession, but by international standards we’re not doing so badly. The threats of secession have never come to anything, and serious bloodshed between French and British Canadians ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. It was another 11 years, however, before the British government passed the conciliatory Quebec Act, with its concessions to Catholicism and French civil law. Perhaps the victorious Sinhalese of Sri Lanka might consider acting in a similar spirit, but with greater promptness.


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