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Wednesday, November 10, 1999 Published at 15:19 GMT

Sri Lanka's unwinnable war

The government has poured men and resources into its campaign

By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

For several years, the government of Sri Lanka has tried to bring about a decisive end to the island's long-running civil war.

[ image: The fighting has cost many lives on both sides]
The fighting has cost many lives on both sides
It spends more than $850 m a year on the war effort, and has more than 100,000 troops deployed in the battle against the Tamil Tigers.

Yet victory has not been forthcoming, despite the government's financial and military superiority over the rebels.

No sooner does the army succeed in capturing a strategically important town in the north than it succumbs to a Tamil Tiger counter-attack elsewhere.

Strategic highway

[ image: President Kumaratunga: victory would boost popularity]
President Kumaratunga: victory would boost popularity
The government says that once the highway to the north is opened, the rebels will be put on the back foot, because for the first time there will be a road route connecting the north and south of the country.

But even if the highway is opened, the rebels will still be a potent guerrilla force.

They have demonstrated on innumerable occasions their ability to launch hit-and-run attacks from the heavy jungle in the north.

And they have succeeded in reversing government gains on the battlefield.

The inability to neutralise the rebels makes it difficult for President Chandrika Kumaratunga to proceed with her alternative strategy of finding a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka's troubles.

That strategy revolves around a constitutional package that would ultimately result in some autonomy for Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the country.

However, President Kumaratunga's proposals for constitutional reform haven't been supported by the opposition United National Party, and without their support she will find it difficult to get the proposals through parliament.

In a further blow, a key figure who was advising on the reform plans, Tamil MP Neelan Thiruchelvam, was blown up in July 1998 by a suicide bomber - making it more unlikely that moderate Tamil politicians will support the reform package.

Two-pronged strategy

[ image: Government forces are struggling to open a land route north]
Government forces are struggling to open a land route north
In the meantime, the government says its strategy is to defeat the Tamil Tigers militarily while simultaneously pursuing a constitutional settlement to Sri Lanka's troubles.

Critics argue this policy is contradictory, because any settlement could not be successful without the consent of the rebels.

The Tigers say they will not stop their struggle until they have secured an independent homeland for Tamils.

This aim too seems to be unrealistic given the government's huge economic and military superiority.

It is a battle in which neither side seems capable of conclusive victory.

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