SRI LANKA'S military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, normally speaks in a deep, measured tone. But when asked to explain the army's progress in its war against the Tamil Tigers his eyes light up and his voice quickens.
The brigadier reaches for his briefcase, pulls out an extendable pointer and turns to a Sri Lanka map mounted in his office inside a Colombo high security zone. He begins reeling off the names of army divisions and battlefields and describing tactics.
"We have been advancing at high speed. There is only a small area yet to be liberated," he says, gesturing to the patch of land still occupied by the rebels.
"The army's morale is very high because we are making gains and results can be seen."
The brigadier's enthusiasm isn't surprising. Many Sri Lankan army officers have spent their entire careers fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The rebels are now surrounded in an area of jungle about 400 square kilometres on the far north-east coast of Sri Lanka, and hopes are high in the capital, Colombo, that Asia's longest-running civil war is almost over.
Many independent analysts and diplomats based here agree that the LTTE has been greatly weakened and is on the brink of military defeat. The army is on high alert to prevent the escape of the ruthless Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
"There is a palpable sense of victory here in Colombo, especially among the armed forces," said a senior Western diplomat.
The Tigers started fighting for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east in 1983, claiming they were being discriminated against by successive majority-Sinhalese governments. Sri Lanka's Tamil community, which is predominantly Hindu, accounts for about 18 per cent of the population, while the Sinhalese Buddhists comprise more than 70 per cent.
Not long ago, the apparently invincible LTTE ran a parallel government covering almost a third of the country. But the Tigers' goal to create a Tamil homeland may never have been more remote.
A determined military build-up by the Government of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been a important factor in the reversal of fortunes. A crackdown on fund-raising for the Tigers in Western countries and more stringent patrolling of the coast by the Sri Lankan and Indian navies, to cut off the Tigers' supply of weapons, has also contributed.
The LTTE has been banned in many countries because of its use of suicide bombers and child soldiers, widespread human rights abuses and its intolerance of any dissent among Sri Lankan Tamils.
However, the Government's military success has come at a price. Sri Lanka's war effort has left the economy stunted and dangerously exposed to the global economic crisis.
For a small island, Sri Lanka has a huge army. It has 180,000 regular troops compared with Australia's 25,000, even though the two countries are similar in population. It outnumbers the British army's 110,000 troops. When the navy, air force and other national security personnel are included, Sri Lanka's military swells to more than 200,000. It has also invested heavily in weaponry systems. As a result, military spending has surged to about 5 per cent of GDP and soaks up about 20 per cent of the Government's budget.
Professor Sumansiri Liyanage, an economist at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, says studies have shown that Sri Lanka's economy would be 30 per cent bigger if not for the war.
A recent World Bank report included Sri Lanka among 28 nations "highly vulnerable" to the global financial crisis because of its large war-related budget expenditure and borrowing.
Even though a battlefield triumph looms, the effects of war still cloud Sri Lanka's future. The Government insists that a military victory will pave the way for a political solution in the country and has pledged a boost to spending on economic development in areas liberated from the LTTE.
But Dr Alan Keenan, a Colombo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, says the war has destroyed many of the tools needed to build a peaceful future.
"Unfortunately the war has set in motion a set of dynamics which run counter to any kind of democratic political solution," he says. "Important things that Sri Lanka needs to achieve a stable political future have been damaged."
One institution under extreme pressure is the media. On January 6 the studio of the Maharaja Television/Broadcasting Network was attacked by gunmen. Two days later Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader , was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle as he drove to work in Colombo.
Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer at a Colombo research institute, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, says a range of crucial civil institutions have come under sustained attack.
"For a long time there has been suppression of any alternative views," she says.
Having won great support among the majority Sinhalese community for the war, the Government now must find a way to rebuild the trust of a Tamil minority that is "scared and dislocated", says one Colombo-based Western official.
The aggressive tactics of the LTTE have left little room for other, more moderate Tamil political groupings to build a large constituency.
"The impact of 25 years of war has been really devastating to the Tamil people and, apart from a few isolated voices, there is no truly democratic grouping representing them," Keenan says.
"Many Tamils have remained silent because people who speak up don't always survive. But that will be one of the main problems in any postwar political process - where are the credible Tamil political voices?"
Mano Ganesan, one outspoken Tamil MP who represents a Colombo electorate, claims at least 400 Tamils have gone missing in the city over the past three years, 14 of them this month. A much larger number have disappeared in the north of the country. Many of these "abductions" could only have been done with "tacit co-operation" from the authorities, he says.
"People in this city are living in fear," Ganesan says.
He fears the demise of the LTTE will lead to a "Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony" and leave Tamils even more vulnerable to intimidation and victimisation.
"If the Government wins the war, there will be no political solution, it will be an imposition," he says. "Unless and until the root causes that created the LTTE are addressed, this tragedy will continue. We have lost the pan-Sri Lankan dream."
The feeling of insecurity is underscored on a daily basis because of tight security in many of Sri Lanka's cities and towns.
Those travelling by vehicle around the capita are stopped frequently by heavily armed troops at checkpoints for vehicle searches and identification checks.
One goal of the high security is to prevent Tamil Tiger suicide bomb attacks, but many Tamils claim they are routinely harassed during searches.
Ganesan predicts many more Tamils will follow the million Tamils who have left Sri Lanka for the West.
One of them is Meenakshi Venkadeshan. In a few months the 34-year-old musician and mother of two will leave Colombo to join her husband, who has migrated to Australia.
"I'm tired of the harassment and intimidation," she says. "It's the way we Tamils are drilled at checkpoints; it's the questions that they ask you. I'm not hopeful about the future for Tamils here."
If Meenakshi's attitude is any guide, the Sri Lankan Government will have to follow up its military success with sweeping changes to its policies and approach if Tamils are going to feel they are respected citizens of the country. Five civilians dead in hospital attack
FIVE civilians were killed when a makeshift hospital in the north-east of Sri Lanka was hit by artillery, health officials said.
The hospital is in an area affected by fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels. A pro-Tamil Tiger website blamed the deaths on "Sri Lankan Army artillery fire". Another 15 people at the facility were wounded, it said.
Dr Thurairaja Varatharaja, a local health official, confirmed the deaths and injuries. The army immediately denied the allegations. However, the claims of both sides cannot be verified because the Sri Lankan government has excluded journalists, international observers and most aid organisations from the conflict zone.
The UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, James Elder, said medical facilities and schools must be protected and be considered zones of peace.
"Families have nowhere to escape, no refuge," he said.
"The very thought of being trapped in a closed area is disturbing for adults in peacetime. What then goes through the mind of a child who is trapped in such violence?"
The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland for 25 years but the army says it has driven the rebels into an area of about 400 square kilometres in the far north-east of the country.
Aid groups have warned that up to 250,000 civilians are in danger because of the fighting. The Red Cross - the only independent agency still operating in the conflict zone - said there is hardly any area left in that part of the country where civilians can be safe from the hostilities.
"Tens of thousands of displaced civilians are concentrated in an area so small there are serious concerns about their living conditions and physical wellbeing," a Red Cross spokeswoman in Colombo told the Herald .
Mr Elder said there are fears for a number of children trapped in the zone and those who are used as child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. "We stress that these children must not be caught in the crossfire," he said.