Q&A: Sri Lanka crisis

The government says its aim is to defeat the rebels on the ground

Having announced the capture of Mullaitivu, the last of the Tamil Tigers' north-eastern strongholds, the Sri Lankan army says that it is very close to defeating the rebels after years of war.
The fall of Mullaitivu - declared by the military and unconfirmed as yet by the rebels - follows the recent captures by government forces of Kilinochchi and the Jaffna peninsula.
Thousands of people - troops, Tamil Tiger rebels and Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim civilians - are estimated to have been killed since fighting escalated after 2005. Thousands more have been displaced.
How serious is the violence?
Seldom has the Sri Lankan civil war been as hard-fought as it is now. The army is pushing to defeat the rebels as soon as possible.
The capture of Mullaitivu so soon after the rebels' de facto capital of Kilinochchi was taken is a huge symbolic victory for the army.
While independent confirmation of the casualty figures in the recent fighting is impossible to verify - access to the area is strictly controlled by the government - there is little doubt that both sides have suffered considerable losses.
Tens of thousands of people have been made homeless in recent months, mainly in the north where the military has made inroads into areas under Tamil Tiger control after seizing control of many eastern areas last year.
Relief agencies have warned that feeding the displaced is becoming increasingly difficult.
Why the upsurge in violence?
It increased after President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hard-line election campaign in November 2005, when he ruled out autonomy for Tamils in the north and east and promised to review the peace process.

The army may be winning the battle, but it might not win a guerrilla war

In between then and now the military offensive against the rebels has been ratcheted up, with the government formally abandoning a six-year-old Norwegian brokered ceasefire at the beginning of 2008.
Some analysts argued that the rebels provoked the government into retaliation and war by staging attacks despite the truce, but others said they wanted to negotiate from a position of strength.
Peace moves
The two sides held six rounds of direct talks following the 2002 truce agreement.
They agreed to exchange prisoners of war for the first time and the rebels at one stage even dropped their demand for a separate state. It was arguably the closest the country has ever come to a lasting peace settlement.
But the Tigers pulled out of talks in 2003 and again in 2006 - claiming they were being sidelined - and between then and 2008 both sides accused each other of numerous breaches of the ceasefire as the country slid inexorably towards all out war.
What do the rebels want?
The Tigers started fighting in the 1970s for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east.
They argued that the Tamils had been discriminated against by successive majority Sinhalese governments.
They are a proscribed as a terrorist group in many countries.
Who is winning?
With its advances in the east in 2007 and progress in the north in 2008, most of Sri Lanka is now under government control.
But even though the army is now in a commanding position after taking Mullativu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna, the rebels have shown on innumerable occasions their capacity to fight a guerrilla war through the use of suicide bombings, assassinations and even aerial attacks carried out by planes operating from secret jungle bases.
What is the current military balance?
Analysts say the recent success of the government can be explained by a number of factors including:

  • Increased government spending on the latest military assault
  • Crackdowns across Europe, Canada and the US on overseas fund-raising for the Tigers
  • Much reduced arms supplies for the Tigers because of stringent joint patrols by the Sri Lankan and Indian navies searching for vessels smuggling arms from south-east Asia
What is the human and economic cost of the war?
The conflict has killed an estimated 70,000 people, displaced thousands more and held back the island's growth and economic development.
Both the military and the Tigers have been regularly accused of gross abuses of human rights by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In October 2007, the government announced that it planned to increase defence expenditure in 2008 by nearly 20% to 166.4bn rupees ($1.48bn) from 139.6bn in 2007.