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Published: Thursday, 5/21/2009

Sri Lanka's choice

SRI Lanka's military has won its decades-long conflict with the separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The question now is whether the government of this island nation will win the peace.

Since 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam waged a bloody, often brutal, campaign seeking independence for Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population, succeeding at one point in controlling about a third of the island.

The terrorist group used suicide bombings, political assassinations, and attacks on civilian targets as well as forcing children to become soldiers. Recently, it was accused of using civilians as human shields.

But government forces also have been accused of human rights violations and this week, military officials rejected the Tamil Tigers' surrender offer as a ploy, opting instead for a decisive victory that eventually included the deaths of the Tigers' top leadership, including rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The smoke had hardly cleared from the battlefield when European Union officials called for an independent investigation into the killing of civilians following reports that the military repeatedly shelled heavily populated areas, including hospitals.

Clearly, conduct on both sides of this conflict that has claimed some 70,000 lives has been deplorable. But more important at this point is what Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa does in the future.

Victory must not be allowed to devolve into a quest for retribution against Tamil civilians. Instead, efforts should be directed at allaying fears and improving relations between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese population. That effort likely should include considerable autonomy for the northern and eastern districts where ethnic Tamils, who have felt marginalized politically and economically, make up the vast majority of the population.

The battlefield has offered President Rajapaksa a blank page on which to begin writing his country's future. He must choose: retribution or reconciliation.

How he chooses is critical because failure to address the root causes of the 26-year-old insurgency will only give rise to a future generation of rebels.

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