Wednesday, May 20, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Sri Lanka’s president reached out Tuesday to the Tamil minority, calling for political compromise to unify this island nation after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebel group and the death of its leader.

But broad distrust between ethnic communities after a quarter-century of warfare could make it difficult for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to accomplish that goal.

A day after the rebels were defeated on the battlefields of the north, state television broadcast footage of rebel chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s bloated body - still dressed in dark green camouflage - laid out on a stretcher next to a lagoon. A blue cloth rested on his head, apparently to cover a bullet wound. His open eyes stared blankly.

The footage was meant to refute rebel claims that their supreme leader had somehow survived the bloody final battle that killed 350 rebels and gave the government control of the entire country for the first time in decades.

The body was also identified by Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, a former rebel commander, who defected and is now a government minister, the government said. Defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the government might conduct a DNA test as well.

“Our motherland has been completely liberated from separatist terrorism,” Mr. Rajapaksa told jubilant lawmakers in a nationally televised victory speech to parliament. He declared Wednesday a national holiday of celebration.

He also extended a hand to the mainly Hindu Tamil community, which makes up 18 percent of the country’s 20 million people and has complained of decades of discrimination at the hands of the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

“All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights. That is my aim,” he said, briefly speaking in the Tamil language.

Mr. Rajapaksa has said he would negotiate some form of power-sharing deal after the war and he alluded Tuesday to the need for an agreement.

“We must find a homegrown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities,” he said. “That solution, which would be based on the philosophy of Buddhism, will be an example to the whole world.”

Using Buddhism as the foundation, however, could prove a hard sell to Tamils, who are largely Hindus and Christians.

Speaking in Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that “the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamil people and other minorities must be fully addressed.” He said he would travel to Sri Lanka on Friday and hoped to visit camps for the thousands of people uprooted by the war.

But Mr. Rajapaksa faces significant hurdles in trying to forge a political compromise.

The Sinhalese nationalists whom he relied on to support his war effort - including a party of Buddhist monks - have already declared their opposition to a deal, saying there is no reason for a victor to make concessions.

On the other side, no parliamentarians from the Tamil National Alliance - an umbrella party of Tamil nationalists with links to the rebels - showed up for the victory speech.

The bloody end to the war, which reportedly killed thousands of Tamil civilians, angered many in the community, who were already furious at the tough security measures they face across the country.

Those measures might actually grow worse with the victory, said political analyst Jehan Perera.

“There will be pressure on [Mr. Rajapaksa] to have the security forces adopt repressive measures to suppress any potential regrouping and uprising of the Tamils or the LTTE,” he said referring to the rebels by their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

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