Army recruitment drive amid peace moves

by Amal Jayasinghe
— Sri Lanka Monday announced its first major military recruitment drive since reviving a Norwegian-backed initiative to end the island’s decades-old war with Tamil rebels.

The army’s deputy chief of staff, Major General Lohan Gunawardena, said it hoped to enlist 5,000 men during a one-month period from May 8 as part of a plan to rebuild depleted units of the military.

It will be Sri Lanka’s first nationwide recruitment campaign undertaken during a cease-fire with the LTTE.

Gunawardena said the prospect of peace was expected to attract larger numbers to the army unlike in the past when recruitment drives failed with no sign of an end to the bloodshed.

He said the 5,000 men will fill vacancies and that amnesties were being considered for thousands of deserters to bring the army up to its full strength of 120,000 men and women as approved by parliament.

"Earlier a lot of parents did not want their children to join the army," Gunawardena said. "With the cease-fire and a prospect of peace, we think we will get more young men who want to have a career in the military."

The military is also raising the educational qualifications and reducing the upper age limit for new recruits as part of a plan to raise standards within the army, Gunawardena said.

"We can afford to be more choosy this time," he said, adding that the army was taking advantage of the ongoing truce to send entire units for intense training.

"The key to success is training and we are deploying our full capacity to re-train, re-organise and re-build our forces," he said.

Gunawardena said the truce was generally holding despite minor violations. Political negotiations are expected to be held in Thailand sometime in mid-June.

Gunawardena said the military was gearing to reduce its strength and re-deploy troops for national development work in the event of a permanent settlement to the conflict.

Thousands of soldiers and officers had already applied to leave the military after completing the minimum 12-year period to qualify for a discharge, but were not allowed to retire earlier because of the fighting.

"We have 1,000 men who have put in 22 years of service and want to leave," Gunawardena said. "We can now allow them to go."

But he discounted claims that the military had lowered its guard due to the cease-fire and said the security forces were ready to respond at short notice.

"It will be foolish not to make use of this time for our training," Gunawardena said.

He said the army was also about to deploy one platoon of about five officers and 25 men on a United Nations peacekeeping mission overseas.

The destination was not immediately known, but the authorities were in talks with UN officials to arrange the deployment shortly, Gunawardena said.