Attrition: Victory And Desertion

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July 5, 2008: The Sri Lankan army has a problem with desertion. The largely Buddhist country has never been known as warlike. Seven months ago there are about 20,000 deserters on the books. In the past, the army has managed to get deserters to return by offering an amnesty. Five years ago, the army had 51,000 deserters, and an amnesty cleared most of those. A few months ago, another amnesty was offered, and about 8,000 deserters returned to duty, or were officially discharged. But now the army is doing something rare, it is sending military and civilian police to go find the remaining 12,000 deserters, and bring them in. Most will be discharged, some of those still fit for service, will be offered another chance to finish their military obligation.

The main cause of the desertion is the 25 years of fighting with Tamil rebels. This has killed over 70,000 Sri Lankans. About a third are Tamils (who are 18 percent of the population), most of the rest are soldiers. Since the army was only about 150,000 strong, when the heaviest fighting took place in the last decade, it's no wonder so many recruits changed their minds about being in the army.

The Sri Lankan army has always been an all-volunteer force. But once you are in, you are obliged to stay in as long as your contract specifies. If you leave before that time is up, you are classified as a deserter. In the past, the army did not make a big effort to hunt down deserters and bring them back. That would have caused civil unrest.

A better solution has been victory in combat. And that's what the army has been doing for the past year. Nothing succeeds like success. The generals have been keeping army casualties down, while killing lots of the enemy. So a record number of deserters are returning, and those who refused to come back are being arrested, without much risk of civil disorder over the matter.

 


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