Child Soldiers from Ceylon, before Prabhakaran’s Time

by Sachi Sri Kantha, September 6, 2022

One of the chief arrows aimed at Prabhakaran and LTTE by his adversaries (especially by Tamil collaborators of the Sinhalese ruling hierarchy like Lakshman Kadirgamar and the self-serving pretentious clique who tagged themselves as the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) – Jaffna, led by Rajan Hoole) in 1990s was the issue of recruitment of child soldiers. Of course, LTTE did recruit juveniles to its army. But the Tamil collaborators never bothered to look seriously for answers beyond their noses. Why did Tamil adolescents join LTTE? To be fair, I recognize that Dr. Daya Somasundaram, one of the key members of UTHR, did publish an article in the British Medical Journal (2002; 324: 1268-1271) entitled ‘Child soldiers; understanding the context’. In this, he had categorized ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Among the 5 ‘push’ factors, Somasundaram indicated ‘traumatisation’ by the Sri Lankan state [“shelling, helicopter strafing, round ups, cordon and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions, and landmines”], as a contributory factor which pushed the Tamil juveniles to militant groups (mainly LTTE). But diplomatically, he had refrained from including few vital facts [see, Coda below] relating to the status of children belonging to the majority community in the Sri Lankan society.

In this regard, published details about a book ‘Volunteers from Ceylon’ who participated in the First and Second World Wars presented by Prof. Michael Roberts on September 2nd in his blog [] offered me an opportunity to express my thoughts briefly.

For the benefit of Sangam site readers, first I provide the Abstract (excluding the last 3 paragraphs) presented about the contents of this book by Prof. Roberts. Secondly my specific observations (contributed as a reader response) related to the details presented in this abstract, in two communications are also supplied.


Abstract of the book [courtesy: Tuppahi’s blog of Prof. Michael Roberts]

“This abstract is a compilation of records in honour of all Ceylonese who served in the military during the two world wars, based on newspaper articles, historical records and material shared by relatives, military history enthusiasts, and web-based information.

Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as we were known then, played a comparatively important role in the First World War although we were a crown colony of the British Empire. In 1917 the Times of Ceylon estimated that 1,250 volunteers had enlisted for overseas service. At least 351 Ceylon volunteers signed up while in England and another 438 enlisted on their own account. In addition, the ‘Times Fund’ facilitated the expenses for 156 Ceylon volunteers to enlist overseas.

From the various available nominal rolls and rolls of honour it appears there were minor concentrations of Ceylon volunteers in the Royal Army Medical Corps (apart from Ceylon Sanitary Company), Kings Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), Middlesex Regiment, Coldstream Guards, Royal Fusiliers, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) and the Royal Engineers, Inland  Water Transport unit.

In terms of the 1,250 Ceylon Volunteers estimated, there were 105 fatalities, 84 were Killed in Action and 21 died of wounds. Of the 114 Wounded in Action, 18 were categorised as either missing or Prisoners of War. It goes on to say that of the 330 casualties from the four English medium schools (Royal, St Thomas, Kingswood and Trinity) approximately 28% were casualties. Some of the volunteers were either students, past students or staff. The nominal rolls and the state of casualties are recorded as follows.

Royal – 88 enlisted (15 British European / 73 Ceylonese) – 5 KIA, 13 WIA and 3 POWs.

St. Thomas’ – 86 enlisted (28 British European / 58 Ceylonese) – 14 KIA.

Kingswood – 84 enlisted (25 British European / 59 Ceylonese) – 13 KIA and 15 WIA.

Trinity – 72 enlisted (27 British European / 45 Ceylonese) – 13 KIA, 18 WIA and 2 POWs.

Total – 330 enlisted – 45 KIA, 46 WIA and 5 POWs.

KIA=Killed in Action, WIA=Wounded in Action, POW=Prisoner of War

 These schoolboy enlistments were possible due to the dedication, patriotism and motivation of the British principals and cadet masters of the four schools. Let their example be emulated by the masters and schoolboy cadets of the present schools in Sri Lanka.

The outstanding events of the Second World War in Ceylon were the two Japanese air raids on Trincomalee and Colombo in 1942 which was successfully repelled with the downing of over 70 aircraft by the RAF and the Anti-aircraft batteries, most of whom were manned by Ceylonese volunteers. The experience of being under enemy fire and its successful defence provided a rare opportunity for the Ceylon Volunteers to show their capabilities in combat very competently.

The association with many British Army and other allied units enabled the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) troops to gain much needed experience in jungle warfare training, in the performance of numerous duties including guard duties during war and learning valuable lessons from a professional Army that has stood in good stead for the future. However, at the end of the Second World War the CDF was demobilised in 1946 although a cross section of troops attended the Victory parade in London in 1946. Then in 1947 when the trade union action caused civil disorder certain CDF personnel were mobilised and used to bring back order to the country.

The brief history of the CLIV [Ceylon Light Infantry Volunteers] forms the history of the Infantry arm in Ceylon and the birth of many units of the Ceylon Volunteer Force which later became the Ceylon Defence Force and the Ceylon / Sri Lanka Army later. The above facts also indicate the lack of trust of the Sinhalese in the early part of British colonial rule which impacted very adversely on the local population, the formation of the Army with indigenous personnel and the administration of the country…..”


Three Reader’s Response Comments by Sachi and Mr. Ignatius Jayawardena

Item 1: by Sachi Sri Kantha [Sept 2, 2022]

“Thanks for this interesting write up about this work of history. Ain’t that interesting? Do not misunderstand me here. In the blessed island, recruiting child soldiers for war did NOT start with Prabhakaran and Co. in 1980s? It did start with the British imperialists, during the First World War in the second half of 1910s. I had vaguely suspected this, and was searching for little bit of empirical evidence. Given this fact, isn’t Prabhakaran following the martial tradition set by the British? Lakshman Kadirgamar who crowed in so many platforms about LTTE’s child soldiers, is proved wrong now. He was indeed clueless about the history of his alma mater.

What I like in this write up is the detailed statistics of schoolboy recruitments and casualties from Royal, St. Thomas, Kingswood and Trinity schools. I’m sure you have a copy of Prof. K.M. de Silva’s ‘A History of Sri Lanka’ (1981). He had covered the First World War events in the island skimpily, in ch.29 (pp. 402-416). I checked my copy. Though Prof. de Silva’s had described about ‘Education’ in the island in this chapter, NOTHING is mentioned about the contribution of what you had highlighted as ‘These schoolboy enlistments were possible due to the dedication, patriotism and motivation of the British principals and cadet masters of the four schools.’

I also checked another source – ‘Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka’ (revised ed. 2006) by journalist C.A. Gunawardena, in my shelf. In this highly readable reference book, there is indeed an entry on ‘Child Soldiers’, completely referring to LTTE. But, Gunawardena had failed to do his homework about the recruitments done by ‘British principals and cadet masters’ during their tenure in the four recognized schools, almost 70 years before LTTE’s recruiters.

I reiterate, this comment is NOT to be understood as a cynical remark on the quality of the compilation in ‘Volunteers from Ceylon’ book.”

Item 2: by Ignatius Jayawardena [Sept. 3, 2022]

“I do not agree with the above. Prabakaran’s method of enforced enlistment of immature boys and girls from poor homes was quite different to the call for volunteers to serve their country in time of need.” [spelling errors silently corrected by Sachi.]

Item 3: by Sachi Sri Kantha [Sept 4, 2022]

“It’s fine with me, that Ignatius Jayawardena disagrees with my expressed views. What I liked was the ending of his second sentence: ‘to serve their country in time of need’. I also appreciate the style of his rebuttal, because unlike other correspondents, he refrained from calling me ‘names’.

First, Jayawardena should tell me two things: Was Ceylon a battleground during World War I? Certainly, it was NOT. Which adversary attacked Ceylon then?

Prabhakaran’s call to Tamil juveniles during 1980s and 1990s, was also the same, as what Jayawardena had stated. ‘to serve the country of his dream (Eelam) in time of need.’

This format of reader’s response is inappropriate to debate with Jayawardena, about the reasons why Tamil adolescents joined LTTE. If he is interested, I’d suggest he better check two reports in the ‘New York Times’, by Celia Dugger. These are,
(1) ‘Rebels without a childhood in Sri Lanka war’. New York Times, Sept 11, 2000.
(2) ‘Graves of the missing haunt Sri Lanka’. New York Times, Aug. 29, 2001.

The dirty little secret which had been hidden by the Colombo media, was that indiscriminate aerial bombing initiated by J.R. Jayewardena and Lalith Athulathmudali since 1985 was the main cause which drove Tamil youngsters to militant movements. The second one was, unnecessary and unwanted harassment and arrest (leading to disappearance and death) due to the deeds of SL armed forces in the North and East, which instilled morale for youth to ‘fight for their lives’. It is NOT ‘enforced enlistment’ as Jayewardena states in his rebuttal.

Let’s talk turkey now. One should also not forget that LTTE tackled two State armies, between 1983 and 2009. While World War I lasted for only 5 years (1914-1918) and World War II lasted for only 7 years (1939-1945), LTTE kept going for 26 years, with minimal money and materials. ‘Enforced enlistment’ of youngsters could NOT have sustained such a rag tag army. As Jayawardena states, it was the volunteer spirit of youngsters that sustained LTTE.”



In fact, the issue of ‘child soldiers’ was a duplicitous, smoke screen to cover the atrocities committed on children by the majority community in Sri Lanka. First was the issue of child labor in the island. The Time magazine [April 15, 1996, p. 44] reported an estimate of 500,000 children forced into slave labor in Sri Lanka. Its source was Anti-Slavery Society. Secondly, pedophilia and homosexual prostitution involving adolescents was rampant in the tourism industry, promoted heavily by the then Chandrika Kumaratunga government in 1990s and 2000s. These issues were masked by the promotion of ‘child soldiers’ issue tagged to the LTTE by Kadirgamar and his acolytes in diplomatic and media circles.


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