Friday, December 04, 2009

After the Sri Lankan Surge

While Washington debates President Obama's Afghan surge, another country not so far away offers a glimpse of the importance, and benefits, of getting it right. No, we don't just mean Iraq. Look also to Sri Lanka.

That island nation is just starting to recover from a 26-year civil war, which the government in Colombo won in May when it crushed the last remnants of the neo-Marxist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Colombo's year-long military offensive against the Tiger terrorists was controversial abroad and costly in blood and treasure on both sides at home.

The most obvious green shoot is the presidential election due for January 26. President Mahinda Rajapaksa called the vote two years earlier than expected hoping to ride a wave of majority-Sinhalese nationalism back into office. Instead he's facing a surprise challenger in General Sarath Fonseka, the military commander who won the war.

Neither candidate is perfect by a long stretch, but the mere fact of competition could benefit ethnic minorities. With Mr. Rajapaksa and Gen. Fonseka splitting the Sinhalese vote, each candidate will need to court Tamils and Muslims.

This is creating political incentives to hasten resettlement of the upward of 250,000 Tamils displaced by fighting in the Northern Province earlier this year. Roughly half of those have already returned home from the refugee camps, according to the United Nations. The government this week finally allowed greater movement in and out of the camps for those who remain.

Meanwhile Tiger extremists no longer menace moderate Tamils, who used to face regular intimidation. Incentives are now better aligned on all sides to resolve longstanding, legitimate Tamil grievances, such as Sinhalese preferences in university places and exclusion of Tamils from the police.

Whether the January vote will be free and fair is an open question. But the country is closer to resolving its problems than at any time since the Tigers started fighting in 1983. Sri Lanka isn't exactly analogous to Afghanistan. But the island does demonstrate the benefits of defeating terrorists on the battlefield.

© The Wall Street Journal

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