COLOMBO, April 1- Sri Lanka's appearance in Saturday's cricket World Cup final offers a rare if fleeting moment of unity for a nation that remains deeply fractured despite the end of its decades-old ethnic conflict.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who will attend the final against India in Mumbai, has promoted the game as a symbol of reconciliation following his government’s final victory over Tamil Tiger rebels nearly two years ago.
"Sports has been a uniting factor and cricket has been in the forefront of bringing communities together," the president told foreign correspondents in Colombo just before Sri Lanka’s semi-final victory over New Zealand on Tuesday.
Rajapakse has spent lavishly to build new cricket venues, and local newspaper editors said they had been warned against publishing anything that would demoralise players ahead of the final.
He has also taken pains to highlight the role of world record wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan, the only ethnic Tamil member of the Sri Lankan squad, who will retire from international cricket after the competition.
"The president wants us to win the World Cup as a tribute to Murali," Rajapakse’s spokesman Bandula Jayasekera told AFP.
Sri Lanka have, of course, been here before, having won the 1996 World Cup with Muralitharan in the team.
But at that time, the civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers was still raging. The United Nations estimates that up to 100,000 people died in the conflict which began in 1972.
The Tigers were finally crushed by a massive military offensive that ended in May 2009 with the killing of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his top commanders.
Prabhakaran was known as a passionate cricket fan who, like most of the Tamil community, always supported the national team despite the dominance of players from Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic Sinhalese community.
Sri Lankan skipper Kumar Sangakkara noted recently that Muralitharan, who heads a charity for war-affected children, was "an icon, not just as a cricketer but as an advocate of racial harmony".
But while many in the Tamil community will be cheering for a Sri Lankan victory on Saturday, few buy into the president’s claim that it will help usher in a new era of ethnic unanimity.
"We enjoy good cricket, but I don’t think a World Cup victory will make it any better for us," said opposition Tamil legislator Marvai Senathirajah.
Success on the cricket field, even in a tournament as big as the World Cup, cannot be a "panacea for reconciliation," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a Tamil who heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank in Colombo.
Tamils have long claimed discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, both in education and the workplace.
Equal opportunity legislation was introduced in the late 1980s, but its implementation has been slow and piecemeal.
Rajapakse has promised power-sharing arrangements to give Tamils a greater say in the legislature and to address long-standing demands for devolution of power, but many remain sceptical.
Sanjana Haththotuwa, who runs citizens’ journalism website www.groundviews.org, said bridging Sri Lanka’s ethnic divisions was a massive task that would take many years.
"Cricket offers a happy escape, yet does not address these underlying problems," Haththotuwa told AFP.
While Muralitharan is the only Tamil in the team, Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is also partially represented by opening batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Dilshan, who has a Muslim father and Sinhalese mother, was born Tuwan Mohamed Dilshan but converted from Islam to Buddhism and changed his name.
His manager, Roshan Abeysinghe, said he did it "for personal reasons," adding that Dilshan "wanted a Sinhala identity".