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Sri Lanka: Downsizing Army in Response to Economic Crisis

At the time Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, the war-winning Army had some 5000 more men under arms than its approved cadre. The Army paid strength, in May 2009, had been 205,128 whereas the approved cadre was 200,783. Following the end of the war, the Rajapaksa government quietly began decreasing the troop strength, though the approved cadre remained the same.

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A Sri Lankan Army soldier [Photo Credit: Nuwan Mahesh ]

State Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon could have disclosed a decisive decision taken by the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government to reduce the approved cadre of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) at the launch of ‘STORY OF THE WORLD: Geopolitical Alliances and Rivalries Set in Stone’ authored by Col. Nalin Herath, at Rock House Army camp (Regimental Headquarters of the Armoured Corps), on January 12.

State Minister Tennakoon was the Chief Guest at the event, attended by Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Shavendra Silva, both of the Gajaba Regiment, and several other senior serving, and retired officers.

The author, as an armoured corps officer, has served the 681 Brigade of the 53 Division. He has been the Brigade Major. The 681 Brigade, assigned to the 53 Division, commanded by the then Maj. Gen. Gunaratne, has been credited with the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009.

The first such book, launched by a serving officer, would have been the ideal setting for the official declaration on the reduction of SLA’s approved cadre.

A press release, pertaining to the proposed reduction of the approved cadre of the SLA, was released by Col. Nalin Herath, on the following day (January 13). Interestingly, the statement was attributed to State Defence Minister Tennakoon, who received the elevated position, on Sept. 08, 2022. The Matale District MP was among 37 government parliamentary group members appointed as State Ministers, as per the understanding between President Wickremesinghe and his principal sponsor, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Pramitha Bandara is the son of Janaka Banadara Tennakoon, MP, one of the SLFP seniors who had even served the party during the tenure of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the SLFP leader. Incidentally Pramitha’s paternal grandfather, Tikiri Banda Tennakoon, was a founder member of the SLFP, along with its creator, SWRD Bandaranaike. T.B., having swept into Parliament, in 1956, like so many other first timers, with an essentially Sinhala ethos, he continuously retained his Dambulla electorate for five consecutive terms, thanks to his dedication to serve his people.

Perhaps, that high profile decision to trim the armed forces, that were deliberately expanded in the last phase of the then long-running war, from 2006, should have been announced by President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and the Defence Minister, as well. The government owed an explanation whether the Cabinet-of-Ministers approved the far reaching move and when that decision was taken.

Following the perusal of statements, issued in Sinhala and English, there couldn’t be ambiguity regarding what really prompted the decision. Lawmaker Pramitha Tennakoon declared that the decision to reduce the current approved SLA cadre of 200,783 to 135,000, by end of next year, and further reduce that figure to 100,000, by 2030, has been taken after taking into consideration the current state of affairs. Obviously, the State Defence Minister was referring to Sri Lanka’s bankrupt status.

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to review the approved cadre of the SLA should be appreciated, as it was a long felt necessity, as maintaining an army of more than 200.000, under current circumstances, is no small burden for a country of the size of Sri Lanka, especially as it no longer faced any formidable enemy, militarily from within. This assertion shouldn’t be misconstrued as our wholehearted backing for the government decision. Let us hope some sections in the Opposition do not seek political advantage, thereby causing unnecessary friction amidst the continuing economic-political-social turmoil.

President Wickremesinghe indicated his desire to bring down the SLA’s strength, on Nov. 14, 2022. when he presented the 2023 Budget. Wickremesinghe proposed to allow armed forces personnel, other than special categories, to retire after 18 years of service. Wickremesinghe assured that tangible measures would be taken to provide them training, required to engage in productive economic activities.

On behalf of the government, State Minister Tennakoon asserted that a 100,000 strength as the right size for the SLA.

Change of SLA command

Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Vikum Liyanage, in his New Year message to his officers, and men, revealed the intended decrease in SLA’s approved cadre. Gajaba Regiment veteran Liyanage, who succeeded Gen. Shavendra Silva, on July 01, 2022, declared that preliminary measures had been taken in this regard. Army headquarters, in a statement issued on January 02, quoted Lt. Gen. Liyanage has having said the process was meant to streamline the organizational structure, operational deployment and concept of operations. The Army Chief emphasized the responsibility on the part of the SLA to be prepared to face any eventuality this year. Lt. Gen. Liyanage didn’t mince his words when he declared the need to keep their plans on track, regardless of the current crisis, which he described as a turbulent period.

If not for the massive public protest campaign that turned violent, after Temple Trees unleashed SLPP goons on the Galle Face ‘Go Gota Home’ protesters on May 09, morning, Liyanage probably wouldn’t have received an opportunity to command the war-winning SLA. The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself a Gajaba founder veteran, brought in Liyanage to succeed celebrated ground combat commander Gen. Shavendra Silva. Liyanage received the appointment on June 01. Protesters overran President Rajapaksa’s official residence, in Fort, six weeks later. Wickremesinghe, having been picked as President, by a majority vote in Parliament, has chosen Liyanage to oversee the transformation by granting him a one-year extension.

Otherwise, Liyanage would have retired on Dec. 31, 2022. He received a one-year extension, amidst intense controversy over his successor.

Over a dozen officers would retire by Dec. 31, 2023.

Gen. Shavendra Silva continues to serve as the CDS, a position he held earlier in an Acting Capacity beginning January 01, 2020, while also being the then Army Commander. The celebrated General Officer, Commanding (GoC) the 58 Division (previously Task Force 1) received the SLA command, on August 19, 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency. Unfortunately, many top officers, who contributed much to that most unlikely victory, over terrorism, were overlooked during the Yahapalana regime that came to power in 2015, thanks to the political betrayal by Maithripala Sirisena.

Proposed gradual but significant reduction of approved SLA cadre, by half, within the next seven years, should be examined, taking into consideration two domestic factors, namely (1) Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, and (2) the worst ever post-independence economic crisis that has compelled utterly disorganized and reckless political party system ways and means to cut down both capital and recurrent expenditure.

Cash-strapped Sri Lanka can save a considerable amount of public funds by halving the SLA size. Retired Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera, Director of Operations, during the crucial period of the Eelam War (2006-2009) asserted: “It is not the numbers that matter, but the deterrence….” The one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Malaysia, emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the decision-makers, to adopt, what he called, a pragmatic approach.

Contrary to numerous warnings, regarding the possibility of the LTTE launching a hit-and run-campaign, after the combined security forces decimated its conventional fighting capacity, by February-May 2009, the group was no longer in its previous suicide mode, due to the overbearing presence of the SLA. There had been one attempt to regroup and that was mercilessly and swiftly dealt with. Since then, ex-members of the group remained peaceful, though some expressed fears those who had been released after rehabilitation could take up arms again. Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, having played a pivotal role in the eradication of terrorism. by May 2009, allowed the release of as many as 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres and the gradual decrease of the SLA presence, in the Jaffna peninsula. Accordingly, the SLA gave up both state and private land in the Jaffna peninsula, and other parts of the Vanni and the East, held over the years, to fight the war, to facilitate the return of civilians, in peace time.

Rapid SLA expansion

At the time Eelam War IV erupted, in the second week of August, 2006, with coordinated attacks in the East and across the Muhamalai front line, extending from Kilali, across Eluththumaduwal to Nagarkovil on the Vadamarachchy east coast,

The SLA had approximately 60 regular and volunteer infantry battalions. It, however, lacked the wherewithal to simultaneously conduct offensive operations, defend areas under control and deploy troops to hold newly recaptured areas.

The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa took an unprecedented political decision to rapidly expand the SLA to finish off the LTTE, once and for all. The then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka got what he asked for. Fonseka never hesitated to push the political leadership on the urgent need to expand the SLA. The Army Chief had the backing of the Defence Secretary and the whole process was expedited, overnight.

A recruitment drive got underway, in the last quarter of 2006, as the SLA, at a great cost, thwarted the LTTE offensive on the Northern front, stabilized the situation there, and went on the offensive. A relentless SLA campaign brought the entire Eastern Province, under government control, with the recapture of the last Tiger stronghold, at Toppigala, in July 2007. As the name denotes, it was a rock outcrop, with a clear viewing advantage of the surroundings. But, that wouldn’t have been possible without operations, conducted by the Navy and the Air Force, both in support of ground forces, as well as to weaken the overall conventional capacity of the enemy. But, ironically, that fact was lost on our warwinning military genius, Sarath Fonseka, and, no doubt, a man with a sixth sense, but who ironically felt that all war trophies should go to the Army and him.

We will cite just one example as to why we say he had a sixth sense that helped to win the war. For a long time, we had heard from lower ranking officers that they were often reluctant to call in artillery support as often they themselves got whacked by such ‘friendly’ fire. But after the all-out war broke out, in 2006, and the Army was advancing on several fronts, we suddenly found that Fonseka had taken a rather unusual step of putting a stop to the discretionary power of our artillery and he had placed Special Forces operatives with all field artillery units and they couldn’t fire their big guns till those minders, clearly wearing T-shirts, emblazoned ‘Special Forces’, double checked their ranges. And, miraculously, that ended many a friendly artillery killing our own soldiers. This was something all previous commanders failed to do.

As many as 120,000 men were mobilized as the the SLA raised almost 100 infantry battalions. It would be pertinent to mention that new recruits were required for new fighting formations and also to replenish depleted battalions. The high intensity Vanni battles took a heavy toll on fighting formations. The incumbent Army Commander had served as the Commanding Officer of the 8th battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (Jan. 1, 2006 to June 06, 2006) attached to 56 and 57 Divisions during the Vanni campaign. The 56 Division played a defensive role whereas 57 Division played a critically important offensive role, though it ceased offensive operations, after capturing Kurivilkulam, in the second week of Feb. 2009.

The rapid recruitment, training and deployment of fresh recruits swamped the Vanni with infantry formations. During the last phase of the war, the SLA troop strength doubled, thereby allowing successive commanders after Fonseka, who relinquished command in mid-July 2009, amidst controversy of his decision to enter active politics. Fonseka contested the 2010 January presidential election but suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Having made an abortive bid to spearhead a party of his own, the war hero, who holds the rank of Field Marshal, has now ended up as an MP, representing the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Since the end of the war, there has been a gradual decrease in the security forces’ strength, though the approved cadre remained unchanged.

Unprecedented challenge

In spite of President Wickremesinghe’s declaration Sri Lanka’s commitment to friendly ties with all countries, at regional and global level, his government is ensnared in a deadly US-China conflict against the backdrop of an equally lethal debt trap.

Having declared bankruptcy, in April last year, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach consensus with China and India, two major bilateral creditors whose backing is nothing but a pre-requisite for the finalization of the IMF USD 2.9 bn credit facility, spread over a period of four years. No less a person than President Wickremesinghe, during an informal chat with a group of journalists, representing Upali Newspapers Ltd., on January 06, acknowledged the difficult situation his government is in.

There is still no clear indication when China and India will reach final consensus on this matter, although Sri Lanka and the IMF reached a staff-level agreement, relating to it, on Sept. 01, 2022.

The response of some sections of the international community, to the developing economic crisis here, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration their alignment with the US-led grouping meant to counter, what they perceive, as a growing Chinese threat.

Once Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, declared that Sri Lanka faced a major security threat as long as the Hambantota Port remained in Chinese hands. The warning was given in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage that claimed the lives of 269 men, women and children, including about 40 foreigners, and wounded about double that number. The then UNP lawmaker Wijeyedasa Rajapakse proposed the intervention of Parliament to take back the Hambantota Port, given to China, on a 99-year lease. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Premier of the Yahapalana government that finalized the Hambantota Port deal, in 2017, is the President now.

Sri Lanka needs to carefully review the situation. Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore geopolitical interests of individual countries, as well as various groupings, in addition to the Tamil Diaspora factor. The ‘Quad’ (Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue) comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India. The grouping wants Sri Lanka, within its orbit, whereas China pursues its own strategy.

There cannot be any other reason than the Tamil Diaspora vote for Canada to recognize Tamil genocide, in May last year, and then imposed sanctions against former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently.

Canada’s treatment of indigenous people has exposed their human rights façade, while Ottawa pursue Sri Lanka over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Unfortunately, successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration, continues to fail the war-winning military.

Sanctions imposed on the Rajapaksa brothers must be examined, keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure, in the House of Lords, in Oct. 2017. to clear the military. Following a lengthy legal battle, Lord Naseby forced the UK to release a section of highly censored confidential wartime dispatches (January 01, 2009- May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo.

In conversations with this writer, in Colombo, last year, Lord Naseby expressed disappointment over Sri Lanka’s continuous failure to use available evidence, coupled with a very supportive assessment made by wartime US Defence Advisor Colonel Lawrence Smith, in Colombo, over two years, after the war ended, at the inaugural defence seminar, in Colombo. Sri Lanka simply ignored the US Colonel’s declaration that must have been made quite confidently in the presence of senior military representatives of about 40 countries.

Sri Lanka never recognized the growing threat until the US imposed a travel ban on Gen. Shavendra Silva, on Feb. 13, 2020. That was five years after Australia refused a visa to Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage, also over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, too, has been denied a US visa after Washington quite conveniently forgot backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll and the war-winning Army Chief receiving the backing of the Tamil National Alliance that ensured the General sweeping predominately Tamil speaking districts in the Northern and Eastern Province, at the 2010 presidential poll. But, Canadian sanctions on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, are the first on a politician, whereas Gotabaya Rajapaksa was targeted over his role as the wartime Defence Secretary.

Parliament needs to ascertain the situation seriously, and take appropriate measures, at least now, to have accountability issues examined properly to pave the way for restoring public faith in the political party system.

Parliament, entrusted with financial responsibility, has achieved what the LTTE, one of the groups established by India, in the ’80s, to terrorize Sri Lanka, failed to do.

Parliament has overseen the ruination of the war-winning country. The declaration of bankruptcy is nothing but an indictment of successive governments. The debt servicing crisis should be studied, keeping in mind Sri Lanka obtained IMF’s bailout packages on 16 previous occasions. The next one depends on the response of Sri Lanka’s creditors, China and India.

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

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