The city bus, packed with commuters, had just pulled out of a dusty terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, when the massive explosion ripped it apart, leaving 26 dead and more than 60 wounded. The April 25 attack was another tragic episode in Sri Lanka's seemingly interminable civil war. For 25 years, the government has been locked in battle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The group is fighting for an independent homeland for the country's ethnic Tamils, who make up about a quarter of Sri Lanka's 20 million inhabitants. The Tigers routinely attack civilians, and pioneered suicide bombing in the 1980s. Overall, the war has cost more than 70,000 lives on both sides and frustrated attempts at a settlement.
Until recently. In the past year, an end to conflict has seemed tantalizingly close, thanks to a government offensive that has seized vast tracts of territory and decimated the Tigers' leadership. Success is not guaranteed; President Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly promised that the campaign, which is bankrupting his government, would end by January 2009. But the remarkable progress achieved already is challenging the conventional wisdom about civil wars from Yugoslavia to Iraq: that there is no military solution.
Security experts worldwide are watching Sri Lanka closely as a test case for an idea that has lately gained currency. The "peace through victory" theory holds that civil wars that end with one side militarily beating the other result in more lasting peace than do those that end with a negotiated settlement. Somalia and Algeria are considered examples of the latter camp. Many hope that Sri Lanka will become the prime exemplar of the former.
The Army's accomplishments over the past 18 months certainly are impressive. It has managed to wrest control of seven of the island's districts from the Tigers, leaving the guerrillas with just two. The Sri Lankan Navy has bested the LTTE's Sea Tiger light attack-boats in several critical engagements and has sunk a number of their floating offshore arms depots. Sri Lanka's Air Force has killed two high-ranking Tiger leaders in the past six months. And the government says it only narrowly missed killing Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers' elusive commander and founder, in a December air raid. Meanwhile, crackdowns on the LTTE's financing and arms networks by the United States, the European Union, India and Australia have hampered the Tigers' ability to raise funds and smuggle in weapons.
This is all the payoff of a gamble initiated by Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2005 with the backing of hard-line Sinhalese Buddhist parties. (In addition to being an ethnic conflict, the Sri Lankan civil war is a religious one: most Sinhalese are Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindu.) Last year, sensing that strengthened international cooperation against terrorism, combined with the defection of a key Tiger commander, had weakened the LTTE, and responding to growing exasperation with the LTTE's repeated violations of a 2002 ceasefire agreement, Rajapaksa decided to go for broke. Promising to destroy the LTTE by the end of 2008, he doubled the defense budget to $1.5 billion, about 5.8 percent of GDP, and gave his military commanders a free hand. The armed forces restructured, adding 40,000 new recruits, forming five new divisions and doubling salaries. Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the Army chief, brushed aside considerations of rank and seniority to promote competent, battle-tested commanders. He also started an intensive jungle-warfare training program, forming elite units designed to operate inside Tiger territory and use guerrilla tactics. And he began purchasing loads of new military hardware.
The Sri Lankan Air Force added four MiG-27 attack jets and radar, cutting down on the LTTE's use of light aircraft, which they have used to carry out devastating surprise attacks in the past, and forcing the Tigers back into the jungle. And the Navy added new patrol boats and maritime radar—courtesy of the United States.
But the Tigers—still thought to number 5,000 hard-core fighters and considered one of the most effective terrorist groups in the world—remain a serious threat. After making rapid gains last year—helped by intelligence supplied by Col. Karuna Amman, the turncoat LTTE commander —the government's offensive has bogged down. Its troops have struggled to seize the dense Wanni Forest, on the southern edge of the Tigers' territory. In the north, rebel fighters managed to lure the Army late last month into a trap near Muhamalai and, by the government's own admission, kill 43 of its soldiers.
The LTTE have also stepped up their terror attacks, assassinating two top government ministers in suicide blasts since January. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 180 civilians were killed in just the first six weeks of this year. And government intelligence reports that the Tigers are managing to continue smuggling in weapons.
In Colombo, there is a growing sense that the government's time is running out. Rajapaksa has borrowed heavily to finance the campaign, and inflation has now hit a record-high 29 percent. Last week, Standard & Poor's downgraded Sri Lanka's debt rating and warned of dire consequences if spending is not curtailed. Public support for the war, once high, is waning. Military commanders have begun backing away from earlier promises to eliminate the LTTE by January. Further complicating matters, military recruitment is lagging and desertion is increasing, despite the pay hikes.
International pressure is also mounting on Colombo to end the offensive and return to the table. U.S. economic aid to Sri Lanka has been curtailed over concern for human-rights violations in the war, and the EU may soon follow suit.
Achieving victory is still possible, analysts say. "If somehow [the government] can kill Prabhakaran, that would change the picture dramatically," says one senior analyst for a Western NGO in Colombo. Barring that, if the Army can deliver a few significant victories before January, it may buy Rajapaksa enough good will among the Sinhalese to allow him to continue the fight. For that reason, security experts expect another major push before the rainy season begins in June.
But the best chance for peace, analysts agree, involves combining the military campaign with a political strategy to empower moderate Tamil politicians and deprive the LTTE of support. Most Tamils on the island oppose the Tigers' calls for independence, though they do want more autonomy. Under a 1987 accord brokered by India, Sri Lanka passed a constitutional amendment that was supposed to transfer some powers to the provinces. But the Tigers refused to disarm as called for under the accord, and the amendment was never implemented in Tamil areas.
Rajapaksa has promised to correct this, but many doubt his sincerity. In the country's ethnically and religiously mixed east, which held provincial elections last week, the president's party has joined forces with the political wing of Karuna's former LTTE faction, which is unpopular with many mainstream Tamil groups. Many suspect Rajapaksa hopes to set up Karuna's party as a puppet regime in the Eastern Province, allowing Colombo to claim credit for devolving power while retaining full practical control.
C. R. Jayasinghe, the Sri Lankan ambassador to India, says that the government will abide by the provincial poll results and fully implement the constitutional amendment. Without a more serious effort to redress discrimination, however, many international commentators believe the military campaign can't succeed. The fighting alone "cannot be the whole solution, because that alone won't address the grievances of the minority community," says Susan Hayward of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Unfortunately, Rajapaksa, who is surrounded by Sinhalese hardliners, has shown little interest in truly reaching out to the Tamils. Which means that while there may well be a military solution to Sri Lanka's civil war, it probably isn't this one.