Learning from history is a phrase that is much used but little practised. The main lesson Sri Lanka should have learnt from recent history is that war is a trap by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to further its goal of an independent Eelam. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the most visionary of Sri Lankan leaders, realised this too late. Provoked into an all-out war by the LTTE, she suffered the consequences despite having the best constitutional plan that Sri Lanka has yet produced for sharing power with the minorities. With Tamil civilians enduring untold hardships in the war, the minority community, which initially backed Ms. Kumaratunga, deserted her. The LTTE exploited the war to project itself as the only group fighting for Sri Lankan Tamils, and therefore as their only leadership. The Kumaratunga government's plan to woo Tamils with constitutional reforms along federal lines did not work, as an opportunistic opposition joined hands with the LTTE to sink the project. It was to be seven years, during which hundreds of lives were lost and thousands of people displaced and millions of rupees spent, before the government extricated itself from the mess. President Mahinda Rajapakse seems to be walking into the same trap. Although the 2002 ceasefire has not been officially called off, it has looked more and more like a war ever since the dispute over control of a water source in the East escalated into fighting.

There is grave concern over reports that the Government was responsible for the killing of innocent children in an air raid last week. Colombo has vehemently denied the allegation, claiming that what was hit was an LTTE training camp. But if the charge is proved correct, the Government would lose considerable ground in the undeclared war. The use of bomber jets to fight a guerrilla army, especially one known to use civilians as shields, raises moral and political questions that even advocates of a military solution will find hard to answer. Sri Lanka must make earnest efforts to pull back from hostilities. The LTTE has used one provocation after another to draw a military response from the Government. It has no interest in a just, federal settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils in a united Sri Lanka. The killing of Kethesh Loganathan, deputy secretary-general of the Sri Lanka government peace secretariat and a dissident Tamil a year after the assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar has reinforced this reading. Over the past two decades, Loganathan dedicated his life to finding a solution to the conflict that would allow Tamils to live as equal citizens with Sinhalese in one country. For this, the LTTE killed him, just as it killed Kadirgamar, Neelan Tiruchelvam, and several other Tamils who shared this view. The Government has to marginalise the LTTE, but getting drawn into a war is no way to go about it. The only way is to work back to the ceasefire with the LTTE, and redouble efforts towards constitutional reform for devolution of power along federal lines.