Every war presents opportunities for its participants to make peace. It also presents learning opportunities for those of us attempting to observe and analyse it. That is why it is important to draw the right lessons from each conflict.
The war in Sri Lanka is sometimes portrayed as a war between the state and a terrorist organisation, and therefore, the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was the defeat of a terrorist group. Some are calling the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran equivalent (at least for Sri Lanka) to the killing of Osama bin Laden. However, this conclusion may be misleading.
The problem is with the word “terrorist”. Groups that are labeled terrorist organisations are very broad in scope, so merely being called terrorists says little about them. It may be prudent to note that the Tamil Tigers were the de facto government of much of the Tamil area of Sri Lanka for decades. Many terrorist organisations only have the power to scare outsiders into political action.
While negotiations were persistently beset by setbacks until their very end, the Tigers were nonetheless a group that could be negotiated with. But many terrorist groups cannot be negotiated with, nor can they be defeated militarily. These groups have highly decentralised structures and move through the people as a fish swims in the water, as Mao said. The Tigers could not have been swimming among the people if they were decisively beaten, without the army killing virtually all Tamil citizens to get at the Tigers.
Sri Lanka is now at a crucial point in its history. The Sinhalese government has defeated the Tigers because they can be defeated, and must negotiate with them because they can negotiate. If the winning side breaks promises, punishes ethnic Tamils and does nothing to help them integrate into the wider Sri Lankan state, it might not be long until there is more violence. It will not have defeated terrorism. It will have squandered the opportunity for learning and for peace.