Sri Lanka has since earliest times been within the security orbit of its massive northern neighbor. Successive waves of invasion from the kingdoms of ancient India brought the majority of the Tamil and Sinhalese inhabitants to the island, while the overwhelming military power to the north historically has been the dominant external threat. In its distant past, Sri Lanka on a few occasions was able to project military power beyond its own shores to participate in the struggles of south India. For most of its history, however, and for all of the twentieth century, Sri Lanka's security posture has been a defensive one, responding with a greater or lesser degree of internal unity to the threats of the outside world. Together with India, Sri Lanka was swept along in the regional conflicts of world powers, undergoing domination in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Warfare plays a central role in the historical traditions of Sri Lanka. The two great literary works of this early period — the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa — relate in great detail the battles and campaigns of the ancient kingdoms (see Ancient Legends and Chronicles). For most of Sri Lanka's history, these conflicts were confined to the island and its coastal waters as the various kingdoms battled with each other or attempted to repel new waves of immigrants and invaders from the mainland. In the twelfth century, however, Parakramabahu I was able to unify the island and assemble a military force strong enough to engage in conflicts overseas. In 1164 he sent a naval force to Burma to retaliate for the poor treatment his envoys had received. In another expedition, to southern India, his army took part in a succession struggle for the Pandyan throne. *

Thirteenth-century manuscripts tell of "four-fold" armies in which divisions of elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry confronted each other in battle. Troops in this period were raised by local levies among ordinary citizens, while special corps of "moonlight archers" and mace-bearers were given extended training. Foreign mercenaries played an important role in these armies, with Indians (Tamils, Keralas, and Rajputs) especially prominent.*

Sri Lanka’s Military in the Colonial Era

The armed forces of Sri Lanka bear the clear imprint of the British institutions and traditions that shaped them. The army was initially formed as a volunteer force to supplement the British military presence in the late nineteenth century, and British leadership of Sri Lankan troops continued through World War II. Even after independence, Britain continued to play a major role in training, equipping, and symbolically leading of the Sri Lankan armed forces. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Centuries of colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British interrupted Sri Lanka's martial traditions (See Europeans in Sri Lanka Under History). The kingdoms of Jaffna, Kotte, and Kandy, divided by bitter rivalries, were unable to mount a unified opposition to the colonial powers, and one by one, the native armies fell to the superior force of the invaders. The British defeat of the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815-18 marked the end of an independent Sri Lankan military force. The institution of colonial rule, however, soon created the need for a native, military force to maintain order. To fill this need, the colonial government raised a contingent of light infantry named the Ceylon Rifles. The force was composed largely of Malay soldiers under British officers, and was the only formation of regular, full-time troops established in Sri Lanka during the colonial period. As such, its existence was brief, and when the maintenance of the unit became too costly, it was disbanded. From 1873 until independence, the island's entire indigenous force consisted of a volunteer reservist army. *

The first component of this new army, the Ceylon Light Infantry Volunteers, was established in 1881 by proclamation of the lieutenant governor. Like the Ceylon Rifles, the new volunteer force was commanded by British officers, while the ranks were filled out largely with Burghers, a highly Westernized group that adapted well to the demands of volunteer service (see Ethnic Groups) A mounted infantry company was added in 1892, and in 1900 this contingent was called to South Africa to assist the British army in the Boer War.*

In 1910 the volunteer corps was redesignated as the Ceylon Defence Force. Although Sri Lankan units were not deployed outside the island in either of the world wars, individual soldiers served in the British and British Indian armies. In World War II, the British crown took direct control of the island's armed forces from the colonial government. During this period, the Ceylon Light Infantry grew from 1 battalion to 5 battalions, while the total number of troops in uniform increased to 12,000. Most of these were engaged in maintenance and transport functions. Their most direct contact with the war came in April 1942 when the Japanese launched an air attack on Colombo.*

Sri Lanka’s Military After Independence in 1948

Since independence in 1948, the nation has attempted to balance an external policy of nonalignment with an increasing reliance on Western development aid and an institutional affinity to British political and legal systems. While retaining membership in the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka reclaimed military bases granted to the British under a 1947 defense agreement and has attempted to insure its security by maintaining good ties with both the Western and communist worlds. Within the South Asian region, India continues to play a dominant role in Sri Lankan strategic consciousness and is perceived as the primary long-term external threat. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

New Delhi's role in Sri Lankan national security has been further complicated by the direct involvement of Indian troops in the island nation's internal ethnic conflict in the late 1980s. Although this conflict is sometimes traced back to the mythical prehistory of ancient Sri Lanka, it emerged on the modern scene with the resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism in the 1950s, and by the early 1980s it constituted the single most serious threat to the nation's security. In addition to occasional outbreaks of large-scale civil violence between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, the government has been faced with subversion and armed attacks from a changing array of terrorist organizations representing both Sinhalese and Tamil interests.*

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). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

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).*

The armed forces were slow in responding to this threat. At the time of independence, Sri Lanka had only a small, volunteer reserve force led primarily by British officers. After the establishment of the Royal Ceylon Army, Navy, and Air Force in the years following independence, the country continued to rely on volunteers to provide for its security; its small armed forces served mainly to assist the police in the maintenance of public order.

Sri Lanka’s Military in the 1970s and 80s

Two major events in the 1970s and 1980s forced the government to break with this past practice and to give a higher priority to defense issues. The first was the 1971 insurrection by the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna — JVP) that caught the army largely unprepared and forced the government to rely on foreign military assistance to restore order. The second event, the communal rioting of July 1983, left thousands of Tamil civilians dead and fueled a Tamil insurgency strong enough to wrest control of the Jaffna Peninsula from the Sri Lankan government. Faced with these challenges, the government made important changes in the structure and size of the armed forces. It instituted a national draft in 1985, intensified its recruitment and training efforts, and devoted a greater percentage of the budget to its growing military needs. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In spite of these improvements, the Sri Lankan government found itself unable to deal with the military, political, and fiscal pressures caused by the Tamil insurgency. In July 1987, President Junius R. Jayewardene and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord providing a political solution to the conflict and allowing Indian peacekeeping troops to enforce the cease-fire and laying down of arms in the Northern Province. Continuing conflict on the terms of the accord led to a resumption of fighting in September 1987, with the Indian troops participating as active combatants in support of the Sri Lankan government. By December 1987, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) had increased to 30,000 troops, and Sinhalese political groups expressed a growing impatience at the extended presence of Indian forces. Although these troops were purportedly fighting on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, many Sinhalese still viewed them with grave suspicion and saw their continued presence as a challenge to Sri Lankan sovereignty.*

Like the Sri Lankan armed forces, the national police experienced major changes as a result of the deterioration of public order in the 1970s and early 1980s. Previously an unarmed force organized along British lines, the police force was greatly expanded and provided with a variety of firearms in the wake of the 1971 uprising. The Tamil insurgency in the Northern and Eastern provinces prompted the creation of the Special Task Force, a police field force that played a major role in antiinsurgent operations in the 1980s. At the same time, the regular police force was supplemented by the formation of a local militia known as Home Guards.*

The challenge of both Sinhalese and Tamil insurgent movements also brought substantial change to the criminal justice system. After an initial liberalization in the wake of the 1977 elections, the United National Party (UNP) government moved to expand the powers of the police, the armed forces, and the courts at the expense of civil liberties. Through emergency regulations and a variety of antiterrorist provisions, the government imposed temporary restrictions on the fundamental freedoms embodied in the Constitution.*

During the 1970s and 1980s, the armed forces were greatly expanded and regularized in an attempt to cope with the growing problems of domestic instability. Despite these efforts, the military still lacked both the strength and the training to handle the crises that confronted the nation, and on two occasions the Sri Lankan government asked India to send in troops to restore internal order.*

Because of their limited size and the pressing demands of internal security, the military forces have not been deployed overseas. Rare exceptions have been the dispatch of small military observer groups, in connection with international peacekeeping efforts, such as the United Nations force on the Indo-Pakistani border in 1966. In their largely domestic mission of internal defense, the armed forces resemble the paramilitary and police forces of larger nations. Since independence, their role has gradually expanded to include counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, controlling illegal immigration and smuggling, protecting vital institutions and government officials, and providing emergency relief during national disasters.*

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). 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.*

Sri Lanka’s Military and the Emerging Threat of the Tamil Tigers

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). 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. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

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). 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.*

Military of Sri Lanka During the 1983-2009 Civil War with the Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tiger army was relatively small but well-trained, determined and internationally funded. During the Tamil Tiger era the Sri Lankan military also had to contend with civil violence and terrorist activities as well as provide services like coastal supervision and surveying. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The civil war with the Tamil Tigers ended in 2009. In 2005 the armed forces of Sri Lanka totaled 111,000 active personnel with 5,500 reservists, with 78,000 in the army, 15,000 in the navy and 18,000 in the air force. The paramilitary had 88,600 personnel in a police force, national guard, and home guard. The opposition forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have numbered around 7,000 armed troops. The defense budget in 2005 was around $564 million. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

For a while military spending was so high the national debt was unsustainable. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers suffered extensive damage to their infrastructure from the tsunami in 2004.

The intervention of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in 1987 permitted the Sri Lankan government to decrease its defense outlays for the first time in ten years. Since the United National Party came to power in 1977, Colombo's efforts to quell the Tamil insurgency and the radical Sinhalese movement in the south had demanded an increasing share of the nation's resources; in the early 1980s, defense expenditures represented only 1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP see Glossary). By 1986 this figure had risen to 3.5 percent, and by 1987 it was estimated at over 5 percent. After a number of supplemental appropriations, 1987 defense costs were estimated at Rs10.6 billion (for value of the rupee — see Glossary), including Rs3.5 billion for the army, Rs1.3 billion for the navy, Rs1.9 billion for the air force, and Rs1.7 billion for the police (see National Police and Paramilitary Forces). The dramatic growth in defense outlays took place at a time when Sri Lanka's major exports were realizing significantly lower prices on the international market and in 1986, for the first time, the government was forced to resort to large-scale commercial borrowing. A continuation of this trend promised to undermine the government's development efforts and aggravate an already sizable trade deficit (see Trade). After the arrival of Indian troops in July 1987, the Sri Lankan government withdrew most of its forces from Northern and Eastern provinces, saving significantly on operational costs. As a result, Sri Lanka projected a 37 percent cut in army expenditures and a total military budget of Rs9.2 billion, 13 percent below 1987 levels. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Fighting in the Sri Lankan Civil War

Most of the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and government security forces during the Sri Lankan Civil War took place in Tamil-dominated areas in the north, with much of it occurring on the Jaffna peninsula in far northern Sri Lanka and along Route A-9, the so called highway of death, which runs north and south on the northen part of the island. The south was largely insulated from the war with the exception of the occasional terrorist attacks.

There were clashes at sea between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan navy. The Tamil Tigers brought many of their weapons in by sea and moved fighters to and from the main part of island and the Jaffna peninsula via the sea. The Sri Lankan navy tried to stop them and frequent battles were often the result.

The fighting also involved disappearances and fighting between rival mobs and paramilitary groups with connections not only to the Sinhalese and Tamils but also the Muslims, who periodically fought with the Tamils. In the areas where there was fighting, curfew were in effect and few people moved around at night.

The Tamil Tigers have suffered very high causality figures. By one count in early 2000s, they had lost more than 17,600 fighters and followers — almost twice the number of their active fighters at that time.

There were periodic cease fires. The Tigers viewed the cease fires as chance to regroup and arm. Most of media reports on the war were based on government reports. Foreign journalists were not allowed into the war zones to corroborate the reports. For many it was a forgotten war. Many people died but it was largely out of the attention of the international media.

Sri Lankan Government Forces and Desertion

The number of government troops doubled to 75,000 between the early 1980s to the early 1990s. As time went on they were better trained and better armed. But they lacked the conviction and passion of the Tamil Tigers and the fierce fighting in Jaffna took it toll. "When we fight, they run," one Tiger fighter told National Geographic. "Mentally the are not very strong."

As of 2000, an estimated 30,000 Sri Lankan soldiers had deserted the army. So many government forces deserted during the fighting that the government had to extend a general amnesty several times to get enough soldiers to fill the ranks. The army granted amnesty to deserters seven times between 1990 and 2000. In one campaign 5,000 deserters responded to the amnesty offer. Afterwards the government launched a massive campaign to arrest those who didn't respond. Many of the deserters deserted with their weapons. Some reportedly worked in political goon squads. Some were implicated in kidnapping and robberies of foreign tourists.

To undermine Tamil support of the Tigers, the military made a concerted effort to become nice guys and clean up their human rights act. Rapes, torture and disappearances were out and troop discipline and compassion towards civilians is in. "Our object is to win over the people," one general said "and if we are not careful we will lose that support...Human rights is good for business."

The Nixon administration, fearing the domino effect and a Vietnam in South Asia, supplied arms and military equipment to the Sri Lankan government in the 1960s and 70s. This helped the government ruthlessly put down the rebellion and round up is leaders in the 1970s. When the leaders were released from prison in the 1980s they fomented another rebellion

Indian Military in Sri Lanka in the 1980s

Under the provisions of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, an Indian military contingent was dispatched to northern Sri Lanka. This contingent, named the Indian Peacekeeping Force was composed of army and paramilitary units from the Indian Army's Southern Command, headquartered in Madras. The IPKF, when it was initially dispatched to Sri Lanka, numbered about 1,600 personnel. As the cease-fire failed to take hold, and as the tenacity of the Tamil insurgents became increasingly evident, the force was steadily augmented. Within three months of its deployment, the IPKF presence in Sri Lanka had grown to 20,000 personnel. At the end of the year, two brigades of Muslim troops were introduced into Eastern Province to deal with growing tension in the Islamic community of that area. By January 1988, the overall force had a total strength of 50,000 personnel from three Indian Army divisions, plus supporting units. The following month it was announced in the Indian Parliament that the IPKF would be increased to 70,000 personnel organized tactically into fifteen brigades. Some Sri Lankan sources said privately that the force had grown well in excess of this total, possibly surpassing 100,000 troops, and that its presence in Sri Lanka might well exceed the duration of the insurgency. In mid-1988, however, the Indian government did withdraw from Sri Lanka some of its more heavily armed artillery and armored units that were obviously unsuitable for fighting a counterinsurgency war. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

At the time of its deployment, the IPKF was intended as a truce supervisory force that would oversee the disarming of the Tamil insurgents and the disengagement of the Sri Lankan government forces. As the cease-fire between the two sides broke down, however, the Indians were compelled to assume a combat role and were sent into action against the Tamil guerrillas overrunning the Jaffna Peninsula. In this operation, codenamed Operation Parwan, IPKF units of the 54th Indian Army division launched a five-pronged attack to clear the area of insurgents. After sixteen days of fighting, Jaffna fell to the Indians, and the Tamil combatants retreated to the more inaccessible areas of Northern and Eastern provinces.*

Among the residents of Jaffna, the assault on the city provoked widespread bitterness toward the Indian troops, as reports spread of atrocities and high civilian casualties caused by careless bombardment of populated areas. Many of these reports were believed to be the result of Tamil insurgent propaganda. Nonetheless, in early 1988 the Indian Army acknowledged that there had been serious disciplinary problems during the campaign, and a number of soldiers were sent back to India after conviction on rape charges. Such gestures also hinted that the IPKF seemed disposed to apply the lessons learned from the Jaffna offensive and to abandon its previous hamfisted tactics and insensitivity to the civilian population. When continued insurgent activity required redeployment of IPKF units to Eastern Province and the inland districts of Northern Province, the Indian forces embarked on an aggressive civic action program to restore the infrastructure in war-ravaged areas, and on an intensive campaign of heavy patrolling to keep the guerrillas off balance. The Indians gained experience in both urban and counterinsurgency warfare and made some progress in keeping the Tamil insurgents at bay. However, the guerrillas were proving a more intractable foe than anticipated, and observers were not optimistic about an early conclusion to the conflict.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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