After the Tigers' defeat, the abuse of Tamils must stop

History is littered with the ruined reputations of national leaders who thought they had won a great military victory only to squander it by self-congratulation and stupidity. Whether Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, joins their number has yet to be seen, but the triumphant speech he will shortly make to his fellow citizens will be an important signal of the path he is choosing.

There has to be relief that the worst suffering of the quarter of a million Tamils who were trapped on the island's northern beaches is over. Cowering under government artillery fire, and shot by Tamil Tiger troops if they tried to flee, they have lived for four months in infinitely worse conditions than the people of Gaza during Israel's invasion in December. Palestinians were at least in their own homes, with supplies of food and water, however inadequate. The shelterless masses huddled along the lagoons and sand banks of Sri Lanka's Mullaitivu coastline had nothing except panic, grief and the sight and sound of the dying. The prolonged hell they have been through far outweighs the sudden horror of the tsunami which swept over this same coast four years ago.

The priority now is to ensure that the camps which the government has set up for the surviving refugees are properly stocked with food and medicine. Rajapakse has described the last stages of the campaign as an "unprecedented humanitarian operation". As a euphemism for war his phrase is hard to beat. But if he wants to ensure he is really "rescuing hostages", as his officials claim, he has to give them facilities that respect their dignity.

If these are transit camps to help people recover while they trace missing relatives and gather some strength after seeing their families shattered, well and good. But if they become concentration camps, it is another story. Government officials are already saying it will take a long time for people to be "re-educated" after years of relentless Tiger propaganda. The phrase is ominous. Why can't refugees be allowed to go back to the villages they fled when the army offensive began last year? The Tigers' leaders are dead and have no more sway over them. No one has taken the Tamils' land or settled in their areas, as often happens in civil wars. Those who wish to go home should be permitted to do so at once.

Senior officials recently told John Holmes, the UN's emergency relief ­co-ordinator, that they hope 80% of the displaced can leave the camps by the end of this year. Foreign donor governments must hold Rajapakse to that pledge. They should also insist that the camps are quickly transferred from military to civilian control with unfettered access by UN humanitarian agencies and aid organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Sri Lankan government is asking for international help. The donor community should be tough in its response. India, in particular, has a powerful role to play, now that the Congress party has strengthened its mandate. Along with other foreign governments, it must make aid strictly conditional on a clear vision from the government of its intentions towards the island's Tamils. Is it planning to send Sinhalese settlers into the traditional Tamil homeland with the aim of "diluting the Tamil threat"? Is it going to pepper the area with army camps and checkpoints, like the occupied West Bank?

Above all, what political changes is the government prepared to make? It is 22 years since the 13th amendment to Sri Lanka's constitution provided for power to be devolved to the provinces. The Tamil Tigers' war gained popular support and lasted for so long in part because Sinhalese-dominated governments in Colombo never implemented that reform. Will it do so now? Rajapakse's recent record in the east is not encouraging. Since defeating the Tigers there two years ago, the central government has continued to take most decisions while failing to flood the area with the development aid it needs. Worse still, it has allowed two dissident Tiger commanders who split from the main organisation and joined the government side to carry on gang warfare. If the fruits of peace in the east have been so meagre, it will require a major shift of culture in Colombo to improve on them now that the Tigers have lost control of their heartland in the north.

A long succession of Colombo governments has failed to address the Tamil minority's legitimate complaints. To write the Tigers off as terrorists or see the war against them as "just" distorts the facts. While also resorting to frequent acts of terror against civilians as well as assassinations of politicians, they twice fought the government army to a standstill in conventional war because they had a case which many (not all) Tamils agreed with.

With the Tigers' defeat a fresh opportunity emerges. If Rajapakse treats Tamils as a conquered enemy, who have to be corralled in camps and whose land has to be split up and occupied, he will sow the seeds for new militancy in the generation to come.

Jonathan Steele