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Sri Lanka The Armed Forces after Independence
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    The advent of independence and dominion status in 1948 brought with it a series of changes in the designation and legal basis for the armed forces. In 1949 the legislature passed a bill authorizing the creation of the Royal Ceylon Army, Royal Ceylon Navy, and Royal Ceylon Air Force. The army was formed in October of that year, and the navy and air force were established in 1950 and 1951, respectively. These developments brought substantial changes at the highest levels of command, establishing an independent military force in the hands of an indigenous government for the first time in more than 100 years. At the level of individual units, however, the military order established by the British remained largely unchanged; the officers who took over as the force commanders had received their training under the British and, in many cases, in military academies in Britain. The basic structure of the colonial forces was retained, as were the symbolic trappings--the flags, banners, and regimental ceremonies (the Duke of Gloucester continued to serve as the honorary colonel of the Light Infantry until 1972).

    In the early years following independence, military affairs received a relatively low priority; external security was guaranteed by a mutual security arrangement with Britain, while the function of internal security was usually left to the police. In this period, the armed forces served a largely ceremonial function, providing honor guards for state visits and occasionally helping to maintain public order. From 1949 to 1955, military expenses took up between 1 and 4 percent of the national budget (as compared with 20 percent for India and 35 to 40 percent for Pakistan in the same period), and the regular forces comprised only about 3,000 officers and enlisted personnel. (This represented a significant drop from the wartime high of 12,000, some of whom had been transferred into the reserve forces).

    Even without sophisticated weaponry and training, this token military force was able to conduct the immigration-control and antismuggling operations that formed the bulk of its security missions in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing ethnic tensions after 1956 spawned a number of public disturbances in which the army was called to aid the civil powers, but these were largely local and small-scale events that offered no opportunity for traditional military operations. When the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna made its bid for power in April 1971, it confronted an army totally without combat experience and lacking the training necessary to deal with a large-scale insurgency (see The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna , this ch.).

    In the wake of the 1971 insurrection, the government began to cope with some of the more glaring deficiencies of the armed forces. It immediately initiated a campaign to increase the size of each of the three services. In addition, the troops were reorganized to reflect the new concern with internal subversion; in 1972 the army was divided into area commands, and individual battalions were reinforced with larger rifle companies and additional support companies. Training in this period tended to focus on counterinsurgency and jungle warfare. At the same time, because of the army's greater operational commitments, collective training was suspended entirely for a year, and then resumed only at the platoon level.

    Despite these reforms, the armed forces were once again unprepared for the outbreak of ethnic and political violence that shook the nation in 1983 (see The United National Party Returns to Power , ch. 1). This time, the military leadership was faced with a more complex set of problems, for the conflict threw into question not only the force's readiness, but also its reliability as a defender of public order. In responding to the anti-Tamil rioting that broke out in July 1983, the army was widely accused of failing to restrain the Sinhalese mobs and of actively participating in acts of intimidation, arson, and murder against the civilian population. A 1983 report issued by the International Commission of Jurists documents instances of army soldiers "going on the rampage," burning Tamil homes, and indiscriminately killing civilians in retaliation for Tamil militant attacks on army patrols.

    Such reports played a major role in exacerbating the ethnic conflict and in fostering support for the Tamil Tigers among the Tamil civilian population. The perception of the armed forces as the ethnic army of Sinhalese nationalism stemmed from a number of sources. First, beginning in the early 1960s, the government adopted a military recruitment program that deliberately favored Sinhalese candidates (see Structure and Administration of the Armed Forces , this ch.). A force that had originally contained a disproportionately high number of minorities (especially Tamils and Burghers) came to be more than 95 percent Sinhalese by the early 1980s. Furthermore, the role of political and military leaders during the 1983 rioting suggested that the anti-Tamil violence of the security forces was receiving sympathy, if not outright support, at high levels. For several days after the rioting began, President Jayewardene refrained from any public condemnation of the violence. When he did finally speak out, it was to denounce the Tamil insurgents and the forces of separatism. Military leaders were similarly slow to call to account those soldiers responsible for atrocities.

    In the face of a growing Tamil insurgency, the armed forces remained seriously understrength. The army's fighting force nominally consisted of five regiments, each consisting of one regular and two volunteer battalions. In fact, only one of these regiments had the full complement of volunteers, and these recruits were poorly trained and equipped. The regular forces themselves were below nominal staffing levels, and navy and air force personnel were frequently deployed to fill up the infantry ranks. Understaffing similarly plagued the signal, armored, and engineering units and hampered their support missions.

    New and unaccustomed functions also impeded the Sri Lankan troop performance response. With the sudden growth of the Tamil separatist movement in the early 1980s, the role of the armed forces evolved from civil patrol to antiterrorism and eventually to counterinsurgency. The army and the Special Task Force of the police played the central role in these operations, launching attacks against suspected Tamil insurgent bases and rounding up Tamil men for questioning. The navy assisted with coastal patrols to interdict arms shipments from south India, and the air force was involved in transport and supply. Despite the creation of the Joint Operations Command in 1985, the coordination of antiinsurgent operations continued to be poor. During this period, the government failed to provide an effective strategy for isolating the insurgents and securing the Tamil civilian population.

    By 1986 the insurgent movement had gained enough support to seize control of the entire Jaffna Peninsula. For more than a year, the armed forces in the area were confined to short ventures in the immediate vicinity of their base camps. Finally, spurred on by the threatened formation of a Tamil "Eelam Secretariat," the government launched an assault to regain the peninsula (see The Tamil Insurgency , this ch.). The offensive was preceded by a two-month fuel embargo to limit the mobility of the insurgents. Then, in May 1987, the armed forces began "Operation Liberation," a coordinated land, sea, and air attack involving 3,000 troops, the largest single force ever deployed by the Sri Lankan government. While air force helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers targeted known rebel strongholds, the army, under cover of artillery shelling, moved out of its camps in armored vehicles and expanded its area of operations. The task force gradually eliminated major Tamil bases along the northern coast with the assistance of gunfire from Sri Lankan naval vessels, and by the first week of June, succeeded in driving most of the insurgents into the city of Jaffna.

    Because an assault on Jaffna itself would involve large-scale urban fighting that would cause numerous civilian casualties, the Indian government interposed its objections to the forthcoming offensive. Faced with a threat of Indian armed intervention on behalf of the insurgents, the Sri Lankan government declared a successful end to the operation. The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord that followed provided for Indian troops to supervise the disarming of the insurgents in the north, and the Sri Lankan armed forces accordingly took up positions in the southern and eastern parts of the island. When Tamils resumed armed assaults in September 1987, the security forces returned to the antiterrorist activities that had been their primary function before 1985.

    Data as of October 1988

    NOTE: The information regarding Sri Lanka on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Sri Lanka The Armed Forces after Independence information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Sri Lanka The Armed Forces after Independence should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 12-Nov-04
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