FOR some time now the Sri Lankan Government has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to the intractable problem of the Tamil Tigers and the Tamil people's call for an independent state in the north of the island. On the one hand, the Government argues, it aims to defeat the Tigers on the battlefield - or at least neutralise their fighting ability - while, on the other, it will leave open a door for talks about constitutional reform that will address the grievances of the country's Tamils. There is some logic to this approach, but it has a flaw - it doesn't work. The Government's fillip last week to a strong military-based solution by increasing the defence budget to more than US$1 billion is nothing more than a desperate measure. If a relatively small group of Tamil Tiger fighters has withstood the vastly superior Sri Lankan forces until now, it is unlikely that a few more helicopter gunships and other military hardware will swing the balance against them. The Tamil Tigers have shown themselves to be a thoroughly formidable military force with efficient supply channels for arms and equipment. Whenever government forces have scored a success, the Tigers have hit back just as hard. They are dedicated and fanatical - few are ever captured alive. They have also shown themselves to be barbaric, of course, by carrying out massacres and training children to fight in the front line. Unpalatable as this may be, it is a mark of their will to win. A military victory is not a realistic possibility, but then it is not the Tigers' aim either. Their objective is to break the will of the Government to continue the fight. Meanwhile, the country's people suffer economically and spiritually because of a war that few seem to have realistic ideas about ending. The only glimmer of hope in this sorry affair was the plan put forward by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. This would have introduced a federal system of government and given regions - including that claimed by the Tamil Tigers in the north - a large amount of autonomy. Predictably, the Tamil Tigers were opposed because the plan stopped short of granting independence. But by wooing the more moderate (and the war-weary), the scheme offered the possibility of gradually drying up support for the Tigers, most crucially financial support from overseas. President Kumaratunga's decision to withdraw the bill was unfortunately inevitable after she failed to garner enough votes to push it through Parliament. The bill represented a chance for peace that has now passed, certainly for the time-being, perhaps indefinitely. Now, sadly, with elections looming, those seeking votes are likely to address more mundane issues - people's declining standard of living, falling wages and increasing prices - rather than the cause of these ills: the war itself.