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Sri Lanka Army Deals With Desertion

August 8, 2000

PIMBURA, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Fighting Tamil Tiger rebels trying to divide this small tropical island isn’t the Sri Lankan army’s only problem. The 100,000-strong military is struggling to stop its soldiers from deserting the ranks.

It’s gotten to the point that police have been ordered to search homes in the capital for deserters working as domestic help. Security agencies have been told that their licenses will be suspended if they employ deserters.

``Desertions take place every day,″ said Harry Goonetilleke, retired air marshal and military analyst. ``The statistics three months ago was 22,000 deserters.″

Desertions from the volunteer army _ fueled by a series of defeats on the battlefield _ have become one of the main impediments in winning the war that has killed more than 62,000 people since 1983 in this country the size of West Virginia.

For Cpl. Upendra, it has been a battle of wits evading the police and trying to survive since he deserted two years ago.

Upendra, who refused to give his last name, said he became disillusioned with the army in 1998. He refused to return to camp after going home on leave and has been working odd jobs since.

Deserters can be jailed for three years, army spokesman Maj. Anura Gunesekera said. But the army usually reinducts captured or surrendered deserters immediately.

Soldiers flee the battlefront for several reasons: disagreement with their officers; fear of dying or getting maimed; inadequate leave to visit their families; lure of a quiet life in a village.

To this list Goonetilleke added low morale caused by a series of battlefield reversals.

In November, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam overran one military camp after another and seized control of the main highway in the northern peninsula, reaching to outskirts of their former capital, Jaffna.

They were lobbing mortar shells on the airport and seaport before the government bought new planes and other weapons and halted the rebel advance in May.

``It is not easy to motivate the army in the face of such huge defeats,″ said Goonetilleke. ``Battlefield reversals are the biggest setback to morale.″

Neither Goonetilleke nor others interviewed felt that desertions indicated indifference to the issues of the war, in which the Tigers are fighting to create a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

Another factor fueling desertion is the army’s reluctance to grant home leave. ``We get no leave for months on end,″ said Cpl. Anura Perera, who served in the north, where most of the war is being fought.

Elle Gunawansa, chief priest of the Buddhist Dharmayathanaya temple in Colombo, hosted a radio talk show last month urging deserters to call and tell their problems.

His desk is now piled high with letters. Most of them complain of lack of vacation or personal problems. The soldiers mostly want to spend time with their families or care for their ailing parents.

``We treat soldiers as fighting machines but they are human beings who have problems which have to be tackled,″ said Gunawansa.

The government tries to persuade deserters like Upendra to rejoin through amnesties. Three thousand soldiers have rejoined during four amnesties this year and another was declared Aug. 1.

Unhappy with the response, however, the military and police arrested more than 5,000 deserters during the past two months in a countrywide sweep aimed at inspiring more discipline in the military.

But Upendra says he won’t go back during any amnesty.

Upendra, 31, lives in a sparsely furnished house in Pimbura, a village 40 miles east of Colombo, the capital. He has a ready smile, brightened by the juice of the red betel leaves he chews, and he speaks proudly of his army service.

``I battled in operational areas of the north and east ever since I joined the army in 1990,″ Upendra recounted, hugging his 5-year-old son to his chest.

One day as rebels attacked his platoon, Upendra told a colleague that their commander, a young lieutenant, knew of an impending attack, yet didn’t alert the army headquarters.

``He had no ground experience like us. Only book knowledge,″ Upendra said. ``Unfortunately, he heard me criticizing him from his position behind a tree where he had been crouching.″

Upendra’s platoon repelled the rebels. But he says the officer held a grudge against him and treated him unfairly.

``I decided then that when I next went home I would not go back,″ he said. ``I was a loyal man who lost faith.″

Upendra makes a little money from odd jobs but has no hope of finding employment. Companies require a letter from the village chief certifying a man has been discharged from the army before he can be hired.

Some deserters take to crime. Up to 15 percent of crimes are in some way linked to deserters, said Inspector-General of Police Lucky Kodituwakku.

Defense Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte said the military spends around $5,000 on each soldier for training. ``It hurts when he deserts,″ he said. ``So we want them back.″

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