Sri Lanka desperate for more troops

[TamilNet, Saturday, 19 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The Sri Lankan government is still desperately trying to recruit soldiers for its war in the Tamil homelands. Casualties sustained in the war against the LTTE, natural wastage, and above all, desertions are frustrating Colombo's attempts to wage an all out war against the Tamils. Last Thursday, the Sri Lankan government declared yet another amnesty for deserters.

If they were to return, soldiers are to be reinstated in the Sri Lankan armed forces at the rank and salary they held when they deserted. However, over the weekend, only about 200 soldiers are said to have given themselves up.

Western defence analysts say that up to 10,000 troops desert each year. The Sri Lankans admit this, but claim 20,000 out of 30,000 deserters have returned. Despite such optimistic claims, most local and international observers say that very few have returned and many have deserted again.

The army feigns ignorance as to why troops may be deserting. Desertion is affecting even the prestigious regiments of the SLA. In a letter written to a Sinhalese paper earlier this year, soldiers of the Gajaba regiment said that following an LTTE assault on one of their bases, up to 150 troopers deserted, citing disillusionment with the army high command. Inadequate training to meet the battle-field challenges posed by the Tiger fighting strategies, prolonged duty in the field, recent military losses and the fear of combatting an increasingly well-equipped and highly motivated 'enemy' are some additional reasons quoted by military analysts for desertions within the Lankan military.

Sri Lanka is desperately trying a combination of threats and appeals to encourage deserters to return. Immediately before the amnesty was declared last week, a few soldiers were court-martialled for cowardice. The Sri Lankan army may be hoping that the 'stick and carrot' approach may provide the numbers it needs.

Last year, the SLA spokeman, Brigadier S. Munesinghe admitted that SLA's single most urgent requirement was more 'bayonets'. Troops are needed not only to capture Tamil territory, but more importantly to hold it.

After several years of fighting to occupy the Tamil homelands, the Sri Lankan army is being stretched, according to its senior officers. Brigadier Sri Mudanayake told a western defence analyst last year that 'Our army has been continuously deployed for five years - a never ending tour of duty. We must have more men.'

Since these views were expressed, the SLA has suffered additional severe losses in battles with the Tamil Tigers, causing Sri Lankan military morale to decline further and desertion to become more prevalent.

Over 1200 SLA men were lost within 3 days when the LTTE overran the Sri Lankan military complex at Mullaitivu. The SLA Special Forces deployed in large ground offensives have lost several hundred men in vicious Tamil counterattacks. During Operation 'Sath Jaya' alone, in August 1996, the SF lost over 300 men killed. A similar number died when the LTTE overran a major army HQ last month.

By contrast, the LTTE is recruiting steadily. Last month, Sri Lankan military intelligence officers confirmed that contrary to Sri Lankan propaganda, the LTTE strength had topped 15,000 (from 5,000 men and women under arms in 1990) and was expanding.

Whilst many international organisations and countries are urging a peaceful settlement of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government appears determined to prosecute the war, even though the rank and file of its army clearly do not relish the attempts to implement a military solution.


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