Is the Army Disposing
What President Chandrika is Proposing?

By Rajan Thangavelu

After the collapse of peace talks in April 1995, there is now talk of Norway brokering a peace deal between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Though the prospects for renewed peace efforts succeeding are mixed, there are at least some important developments, which brings a breath of fresh air in a volatile political climate.

These are-

  1. The presence of a Norwegian delegation in Colombo led by State Secretary Leiv Lunde. To add weight, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek is expected to join the delegation next week.
  2. President Chandrika’s decision to resuscitate the draft constitutional reforms, which is to be presented to Parliament within three months.
  3. The conditional support conveyed in writing by Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party for the passage of the government’s constitutional reforms in Parliament

Prospects for Peace
The position of the LTTE was of course clear from the very beginning. In his 1999 Hero’s Day speech, Pirabakaran said,

“We do not trust Chandrika. She does not have the honesty and determination to resolve the Tamil National conflict in a fair and reasonable manner. We perceive her as a modern representative of a neo-Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism. It is for this reason we refused to engage in a direct dialogue with her. Yet, we did not close the doors for peace... We are prepared for peace talks with the assistance of international third party mediation.”

So when there is some guarded optimism about the prospects of peace on the political horizon, the Sri Lankan army is hell-bent in marching to a different tune altogether. It is beating the war drum to a new pitch by trying to recruit an additional 15,000 troops to defeat the LTTE. According to the SLA the LTTE had since been ‘weakened’ after it failed to over-run the Elephant Pass base.

Army Recruitment Drive
News reports say, the army is conducting a door-to- door campaign to lure recruits with promises of lucrative perks and attractive salaries. New recruits are needed mostly to replace the 10,000 or more soldiers who have deserted their positions. Since previous recruitment drives to bolster the ranks of the army have failed, there is now talk of compulsory conscription in the air. This move comes at a time when the LTTE is preparing for a major offensive to take back Jaffna. LTTE has already established several beachheads for a final assault on the peninsula

Key Facts about the Army
The eighteen year war with the LTTE has transformed what was once a ceremonial SLA into a fighting force of about 150,000 men of all ranks. Thus on a per capita basis, Sri Lanka has one of the largest army in the world. There are more Captains, Brigadiers, Major Generals and Generals in Sri Lanka than in any other country of comparable size and population.

A former Army commander had said that the SLA is 50 times larger than it was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago it had a strength of 2,500 but now it is almost 150,000. The regular fighting capacity of the army, in numerical terms, is made up of 9 divisions. Of these 6 divisions are stationed in the Northern province. Two divisions, 51 and 52. are in Jaffna peninsula and divisions 53, 54, 55, and 56 are concentrated in Vanni heartland. Normally a division consists of 12,000 – 15,000 troops. A few key facts about the strength of the Sri Lankan armed forces are as follows:

  1. Army – 147, 000 (including 42,000 active reservists)
  2. Navy - 10,300
  3. Air Force - 10,000
  4. Special Task Force (Anti-Guerrilla Unit) - 3,500
  5. Paramilitary: (Ministry of Defence) 80,000 including Reserves and 1,000 women.
  6. National Guard – 15,000
  7. Home Guard - 15,000
  8. (Source: Military Balance 1995/96)

Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), Sinhala Regiment, Gemunu Watch, Vijaya Infantry Regiment, Gajabahu Regiment (note the Sinhala names) and Sri Lanka National Guard (SLNG) have 44 regular and 41 volunteer battalions. All 20 battalions of the SLNG are volunteers.

Army’s Offensive Capacity
The SLA’s offensive capacity has lately increased with the formation of specialized Regiments equipped with Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). The 6th Regiment of the Sri Lanka Armoured Corps (SLAC) engaged in “infantry duties” is equipped with AFVs. So is the 54th Division headquartered at Elephant Pass. The first, third, fourth and the fifth Reconnaissance Regiments of the Armoured Corps (Regular) are deployed by the army in the Northern war front.

These Regiments are also equipped with Chinese T-55 Light Tank, Chinese T-86 Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs), Czech built T-55 Medium Battle Tank (Sri Lanka’s Main Battle Tank), Ukraine built BMPs and Chinese T-63-11 Armoured Personnel carriers (APCs), British (petrol) Saladins, Sarcens and South African Buffel APCs. Also deployed are dozens of SLEME built Unicorns that are similar to Buffels.

Cost of War
In the eighties the SLA cost only Rs. 1.3 billion, but as of 1999 it cost a staggering Rs. 54.5 billion. Defence expenditure during 1998 was Rs.48.5 billion. Researchers found that Sri Lanka lost US$ 16 billion between 1983 and 1996 because of the war. The loss should be pegged higher at US$ 39 billion assuming the country’s GDP grew at 7% instead of current 4.5%. At 7% growth rate Sri Lankans would have had 40% more for consumption than otherwise the case. These calculations are based on the 1996 prices and the rupee-dollar conversion rate was SL.Rs. 58 for every dollar. Now the conversion rate is SLRs.70 per dollar.

A report by the Ministry of Plantation placed the cost of rehabilitating the 720,000 internally displaced persons at US$ 315 million. Tourism sector suffered a big blow when it averaged only 300,000 instead of an estimated one million each year. Had tourism rate been high, the country would have earned US$ 2.9 billion more between 1983-96. During the same period about 460,000 Tamils migrated to the West in the aftermath of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. Sri Lankan government has been depending largely on foreign aid and assistance during the past two decades to finance the war.

Countries selling arms to Sri Lanka
The SLA has acquired modern technology, sophisticated weaponry and military training from a host of countries. China, Israel, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia, USA and Britain are some of the countries selling arms, fighter planes, helicopter gun-ships, war-ships, fast attack boats etc. Annually, scores of top ranking army officers undergo training in prestigious National Defence Colleges and Military Academies in India, USA, Britain and Pakistan.

On October 10, 1999 the SLA celebrated the golden jubilee of the founding of the army. Colombo witnessed a grand display of pomp and pageantry. Among the dignitaries who were present on the occasion were the Pakistani Chief of Staff, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Bangladesh Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Mustafizar Rahman and the Indian Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. V. P. Chandrasekhar.

Speaking on that occasion, the President, Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga, proudly proclaimed: “In the discharge of its responsibilities...the army has manifested professionalism and dedication of the highest order, earning for itself the deep gratitude of the entire nation.”

Busloads of school students were brought to Colombo at government expense to witness the might of the army in terms of sophisticated weapons and military hardware. They were told that it is their duty too defend their motherland against “terrorists” who are trying to divide the country.

Army as an Instrument of State Terrorism
In other parts of the world, the national army is considered a valuable armour against external aggression. It’s an institution, which makes every citizen feel a sense of pride. But not so the Sri Lankan army. For all intents and purposes it is a Sinhala army and not surprisingly no efforts are made to hide that fact. Since 1958 every successive government has used the Sinhala army as:

An instrument of state terrorism to subjugate the Tamils
A tool to create, assist and provide security to state sponsored Sinhalese settlements in Tamil Homeland- the so-called border villages. Weli Oya Sinhalese settlement is a good example.

Army Commander Lieutenant General Srilal Weerasuriya in his speech to mark the dawn of the New Millenium 2000, said it was necessary to crush terrorism to bring about lasting peace to the country. This reflects the typical mind-set of the army vis-à-vis the national liberation struggle of the Tamil people, which is no different from that of the Sinhalese rulers.

Army’s Racist Structure
Armies of civilized countries are trained to have a deep commitment to the Geneva Convention on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in letter and spirit even under tremendous pressure or provocation by their adversaries. This concept of humanitarian laws forms part of a country’s history, heritage and culture. The Geneva Convention, among the most universally ratified treaties, restricts the means and methods of warfare and protects the defenseless in armed conflicts.

But the SLA being basically racist in its structure and thinking is a notable exception. Added to the fact that the army is undisciplined, a climate of official impunity from punishment has encouraged it to commit horrendous human rights violations against Tamil civilian population. Civilian casualties are of no concern to the Sri Lankan army and the principle of using “minimum force” to avoid or minimize such casualties is totally absent. Rape, murder, extra-judicial executions, disappearances, cordon-and-search operations and retaliatory attacks against civilians have been the stock-in-trade of the SLA. The fact that Sri Lanka ranks only second to Iraq in the number of involuntary disappearances speaks volumes about the SLA’s racist character and conduct.

To sum up, it makes no sense for President Chandrika to make waves about resolving the conflict through constitutional proposals and speak of talks with the LTTE when the SLA is feverishly engaged in recruitment drives. The scene is reminiscent of the exact situation in 1995. Like the beggar and his wound, SLA has developed a vested interest in the continuation of the brutal and bloody war. And it will be incredibly naive to expect anything to the contrary. Is the Army then bent on disposing what President Chandrika is proposing?