Country report and updates: Sri Lanka

Last revision: 25 Jul 1998
25 Jul 1998

1 Conscription

conscription does not exist

Since 1983 a civil war has being waged between the Srilankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The civil war is being waged mainly in the northern and eastern provinces of the country.

Because of the civil war the armed forces have been considerably expanded, from 20,000 troops in the early 1980s to 115,000 in 1997. As recruitment campaigns do not always attract the requisite number of recruits, government and army officials have suggested the possible introduction of compulsory military service several times. A recruitment campaign in July 1996, for instance, produced only 1,800 applicants although 10,000 new recruits were in fact needed. [3]

Nevertheless no concrete proposals for introducing military service have ever been made.

In the 1980s the government created several paramilitary forces, such as the (Muslim) Home Guard and the (Singhalese) Civil Defence Force. They are armed by the government and co-operate with the armed forces at local level. The 1985 Mobilisation and Supplementary Forces Act, which provided for the establishment of the Home Guards and a Civil Defence Force, permits the conscription into these forces of all sections of the population. Conscription into the Home Guard and the Civil Defence Force is not enforced though. Further details on recruitment policies of paramilitary forces are not known. [10]


The government tries to achieve recruitment targets by means of propaganda campaigns and offering economic incentives. Soldiers are offered free travel and health care, and been promised priority over obtaining government jobs when discharged from the army. [9] [11]

Legal recruitment age for the armed forces is 18.

Information about recruitment by the armed forces is difficult to obtain, as the government has invariably imposed military censorship over matters concerning the northern provinces. However reports indicate that soldiers sometimes look amazingly young. [5] [9]

In the northern and eastern provinces the government co-operates with several armed Tamil groups, such as the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). These groups fought against the government in the 1980s, but have since shifted their alliance.

Recruitment policies of these forces are not known; however there have been reports of young men being forcibly recruited, in particular around 1990. The impunity with which militant Tamil groups commit human rights violations is a constant problem in Sri Lanka. [9]

2 Conscientious objection

There is no known legal provision for conscientious objection.

3 Desertion


Desertion is punishable under art. 103 of the Army Act by up to three years' imprisonment. [4]

Hiding a deserter is punishable under art. 133 of the Criminal Code by up to two years' imprisonment. [4]


Desertion is widespread. Because of the paucity of recruits punishing deserters does not seem to occur in practice much. According to one source, deserters are normally returned to their units after serving short sentences. Details about sentences received by deserters are not known. [4]

Amnesties have been announced several times, usually in the context of recruitment drives. According to these amnesties deserters are allowed to return to their units without facing further penalties. Deadlines for amnesties are often extended as not all deserters apply in time to meet the initial deadline. [9]

In November 1996 a general amnesty was announced pardoning all deserters who availed themselves before 30 June 1997. More than 1,000 soldiers were said to have applied for amnesty by that date, after which the deadline was extended until 31 July. Arrangements were apparently made by the military and civil police to arrest all deserters who had not reported by that date. [8]

4 Forced recruitment by the LTTE

Since 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been the sole armed Tamil group fighting against the government. Until the recapture of Jaffna-town by the Sri Lankan army in December 1995 there had been a de-facto LTTE government in the northern part of the country. Ever since the fall of Jaffna the LTTE has controlled large parts of the northern and eastern provinces.

Owing to military censorship and government propaganda campaigns, reliable information on LTTE recruitment is hard to obtain. [9]

Voluntary enlistment by Tamils in the LTTE is believed to be common, but there have been regular reports of forced recruitment by the LTTE. [12]

The LTTE is believed to have a 'one child per family policy', that is it expects each family to provide the LTTE with one recruit. The LTTE claims its young recruits are volunteers and that 'it would be unthinkable to refuse their desire to combat Sinhala imperialism which is the concern of all Tamils.' However families have reportedly been threatened with property confiscation and physical violence if they were unwilling to provide their sons or daughters for the cause. [1]

It is believed that in the late 1980s the LTTE started to recruit ever younger people because of the shortage of older recruits. Until 1995 the LTTE imposed severe restrictions on 10- to 25-year-olds years leaving Jaffna, so very likely the majority of LTTE cadres were drawn from this age group. [1] [6]

Young Tamil girls, often orphans, have been systematically recruited by the LTTE since the mid 1980s. The LTTE has claimed that this is its way of 'assisting women's liberation and counteracting the oppressive traditionalism of the present system'. [7]

A possible indication how people fear LTTE recruitment is the fact that Tamil-refugees displaced from Jaffna in 1996 apparently chose not to register at welfare-centres in order to avoid their children getting recruited by the LTTE. [2]

In May 1998 the LTTE-leadership stated it that it would stop recruiting children below the age of 17. [14]

6 Annual statistics

The armed forces comprise some 112,000 to 117,000 troops - that is, 0.63 percent of the population. [13]

The LTTE are believed to be about 6,000-strong. [12]


[1] Rädda Barnen 1996. A brief report on the child soldiers in Sri Lanka, case study for the Machel study. Rädda Barnen, Stockholm. [2] Amnesty International 1996. Wavering commitment to human rights. AI, London. [3] 'Government might make army service compulsory'. All-India Radio external service, 23 July 1996. [4] Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1997. Ambtsbericht, 24 July 1997. BuiZa, 's-Gravenhage. [5] Woods, D.E. 1993. Child Soldiers, the recruitment of children into the armed forces and their participation in hostilities. Quaker Peace and Service, London. [6] Children of War 1/1995. Rädda Barnen, Stockholm. [7] Children of War 3/1996. Rädda Barnen, Stockholm. [8] 'Army extends deadline for deserters to return and not face sanctions'. PTI News Agency, 2 July 1996. [9] Sri Lanka Werkgroep 1998. Corrections to the draft report. Amsterdam, 22 January 1998. [10] DIRB 5 April 1993. [11] 'Army recruiting civil volunteer force to restore order in north'. SLBC Radio external service, 19 July 1996. [12] DIRB, 26 June 1997. [13] Institute for Strategic Studies 1997. Military Balance 1997/98. ISS, London. [14] Children of War 1/1998. Rädda Barnen, Stockholm.