Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has adopted a heartening tone of reconciliation in the wake of his forces' defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. "We all must now live as equals in this free country," he said, while holding out the prospect of a power-sharing agreement with the minority Tamil population. It is to be hoped that Mr Rajapaksa, who had shown a willingness to crush the 26-year-old rebellion at any cost, is as good as his word.

As the likes of Northern Ireland and South Africa attest, military onslaughts and security-service authoritarianism only rarely deliver long-term solutions when legitimate grievances are being nursed. That outcome can be achieved only through compromise and accommodation.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had many international sympathisers when they began their long and fierce campaign for an independent homeland.

The Hindu Tamils, who make up nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka's 20 million people, have suffered decades of marginalisation at the hands of Governments dominated by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. The country's laws accord privilege to the Sinhala language and Buddhism, and treat the Tamils as virtually second-class citizens.

But goodwill towards the Tigers was progressively squandered by tactics that included the use of suicide bombers to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers. India, most importantly, was alienated and, eventually, the rebels were listed as terrorists by the United States and the European Union. Supplies of arms and funding from abroad began to dry up.

Sympathy evaporated even further when the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakarn, declined a political compromise that fell short of full independence. At the time, he may not have believed he was over-reaching himself. Under his control was a shadow state that comprised about a quarter of Sri Lanka and boasted its own border control, police, tax system and law school. But the shrivelling of international tolerance for the Tamils paved the way for a ruthless and unrelenting campaign by the Sri Lankan Army that overpowered the Tigers in relatively quick time.

In the aftermath of the fighting, tens of thousands of Tamils are housed in transit camps.

How quickly they are allowed to return home or are resettled, how swiftly homes and infrastructure are rebuilt, and how much aid is dispatched to the north will provide a gauge of the Colombo Government's real sentiment. It is not reassuring to hear it talking of "re-educating" the Tamils, and suggesting they will be accompanied by a heavy deployment of troops when they return to their villages. A heavy-handed military occupation would simply sow further seeds of bitterness and encourage Tamil hardliners to embark on guerilla warfare.

This can be prevented only by policies that aim at reconciliation, not retribution, and an effective and agreed devolution of power. Some elements of autonomy were offered during peace talks brokered by Norway in 2002. The international community must now insist these are implanted. India, which has just given the Congress Party a stronger mandate, should, logically, play a leading role in this.

Such intervention may be needed in quick order, given the air of triumphalism pervading Colombo. President Rajapaksa was happy to light the fire of Sinhalese nationalism to achieve victory over the Tigers. His decisions now must recognise the interests of all Sri Lankans. If they do not, victory on the battlefield will have achieved little. The struggle for Eelam will continue.