Conscription on the cards?

[TamilNet, Monday, 23 June 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The Sri Lankan army has extended it's recruitment program, announced two weeks ago, to all sections of the army. However, as usual, only Sinhalese need apply. In the meantime it is understood that conscription is also being considered.

The Sri Lankan army (SLA) will conduct a week long recruitment program, commencing from today, June 23rd. All sections of the army are said to be looking for fresh recruits. Recruitment will be conducted 'outside operational areas' a euphemism for recruiting in Sinhalese areas only. The Tamil homelands are considered the SLA's 'operational areas'. The Sri Lankan armed forces are overwhelmingly Sinhalese.

The Sri Lankan military has an authorised strength of 105,000 personnel. However, according to Western military analysts, losses in combat and desertion, have kept operational strength at less than 90,000 (including up to 40,000 active reservists).

The analysts do not expect the SLA to get a satisfactory response: the army has suffered several battlefield setbacks and taken severe casualties recently. Most of these have been sustained by the 'better quality' units, such as the Special Forces.

Any advances made against the LTTE, such as occupying the Jaffna peninsula and sections of the Vanni, have been achieved by sacrificing territory elsewhere: over 80% of the island's East has reverted to Tiger control according to Western military analysts who have visited the area last year.

The Tamil Tigers are stretching the SLA by their peculiar blend of guerrilla and conventional operating styles. Whilst the Vanni region allows the LTTE to mass troops and equipment for massive conventional attacks on the Sri Lankans, Tamil Tiger guerrilla units have established themselves all over the east of the island and in the Jaffna peninsula.

This dual strategy has meant that the Sri Lankans simply do not have enough troops to overwhelm the Vanni region and hold the other areas at the same time. 'It's like holding corks under water' said one analyst. "The SLA can take an area, but they have to give up something else - which is promptly occupied by the Tigers".

In addition, not all the SLA troops have sufficient training and experience to be thrown into battle against the LTTE. This means that although it has a massive numerical disadvantage on paper, the LTTE is not as pressured at the front line, as some observers think.

A recruitment campaign for the Special Forces units announced two weeks ago has been hamstrung by a devastating LTTE attack last week. Once again, it was the SF units which suffered the bulk of the casualties, losing several hundred more men.

The Sri Lankan government's censorship of such events in the Tamil areas fuels the speculative rumour mill, with the result that most Sinhalese youth are not willing to sign up. By contrast, as Jaffna was captured in late 1995, Sinhalese youth flocked to join up, in the anticipation that the war would soon be over. The SLA offers a comparatively good salary in a bid to attract recruits.

To win the war, the SLA spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munesinghe has admitted that the army will need a substantial increase in manpower: at least 50 new infantry battalions with their logistic and support units, an increase of 50%!

Many analysts believe that the only way the SLA can get sufficient manpower is to introduce conscription.

Indeed, the Sri Lankan government has been considering this option for some time. In July 1996, shortly after the debacle at Mullaitivu, the Deputy Home Affairs minister, Lakshman Kiriella warned of the possibility of compulsory military service, pointing out that this was the norm in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunge has also hinted at conscription, warning the Sinhalese people that 'sacrifices' would have to be made for the 'territorial integrity' (read Sinhalese domination) of the country. However, a decision to introduce the draft will be an admission that the government had lost control and would be tantamount to political suicide.

The LTTE intensified it's campaign for independence following the island wide pogrom against Tamils in July 1983. Over 50,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the government's attempts to crush the Tamil struggle. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil people of the island voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting independence from Sri Lanka.


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