Sri Lanka grapples with army desertions; Over 500 arrested, tens of thousands pursued

The military is pursuing about 43,000 deserters who mostly leave armed forces to join construction and transport industries.

Sri Lanka Army flag
Flag of Sri Lanka army

In an island-wide raid, the Sri Lankan government arrested as many as 563 army deserters last week. According to the army these arrests were conducted on a single day on Thursday. Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence said in a press-release that the Sri Lanka police along with Sri Lanka Corps of Military Police (SLCMP) participated in these raids across the island.

The Ministry of Defence had declared two general amnesty periods in 2016, with last ending on December 31, 2016, providing the opportunity to the tri-forces personnel who are considered as Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL) to obtain legal discharge.

"During the last amnesty period (from 01st to 31st December) around nine thousand tri forces deserters including officers and other rank personnel reported to their respective services seeking legal discharge," the press-release further mentioned.

AFP reports that mass desertion has plagued the armed forces since the end of the civil war and the military is pursuing about 43,000 deserters who refused to voluntarily turn themselves in under government amnesty schemes designed to clean up the ranks. However, over 9,000 officers and soldiers took advantage of the amnesty period by turning themselves in to avoid punishment and to receive their legal discharge.

Just a few days after the amnesty expired in December, the government cracked the whip and instructed the police and the Department of Immigration and Emigration to take appropriate action against tri forces deserters. Towards this end, the agencies started arresting the deserters. Thus, ending any hope soldiers had of avoiding a court martial. Just in January, the agencies arrested at least 250 deserters.

The report mentions that the mass apprehension of 546 soldiers during a sweep on Thursday was "the largest ever", brigadier Roshan Seneviratne said. "Those who surrendered during the one-month amnesty period could either rejoin the service or be legally discharged," he added.

Sri Lanka's tri forces have a combined strength of about 275,000 personnel, but desertion has been a serious problem throughout its history. "Soldiers routinely walked off the job during the 37-year war against Tamil separatists which ended in May 2009, but desertion remained an issue even after combat had ceased", the report mentioned.

Officials told AFP that the peace time desertions were due in part to a reduction in risk-related allowances paid to soldiers, and the growth of better paying jobs in the private sector. Many deserters found work in construction and transport, while police have also reported the involvement of deserters in gun-related crimes.

This article was first published on February 14, 2017