Country Listing

Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Sri Lanka

Chapter 5. National Security


Sri Lankan soldiers

SRI LANKA HAS since earliest times been within the security orbit of its massive northern neighbor. Successive waves of invasion from the kingdoms of ancient India brought the majority of the Tamil and Sinhalese inhabitants to the island, while the overwhelming military power to the north historically has been the dominant external threat. In its distant past, Sri Lanka on a few occasions was able to project military power beyond its own shores to participate in the struggles of south India. For most of its history, however, and for all of the twentieth century, Sri Lanka's security posture has been a defensive one, responding with a greater or lesser degree of internal unity to the threats of the outside world. Together with India, Sri Lanka was swept along in the regional conflicts of world powers, undergoing domination in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.

Since independence in 1948, the nation has attempted to balance an external policy of nonalignment with an increasing reliance on Western development aid and an institutional affinity to British political and legal systems. While retaining membership in the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka reclaimed military bases granted to the British under a 1947 defense agreement and has attempted to insure its security by maintaining good ties with both the Western and communist worlds. Within the South Asian region, India continues to play a dominant role in Sri Lankan strategic consciousness and is perceived as the primary long-term external threat.

New Delhi's role in Sri Lankan national security has been further complicated by the direct involvement of Indian troops in the island nation's internal ethnic conflict in the late 1980s. Although this conflict is sometimes traced back to the mythical prehistory of ancient Sri Lanka, it emerged on the modern scene with the resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism in the 1950s, and by the early 1980s it constituted the single most serious threat to the nation's security. In addition to occasional outbreaks of large-scale civil violence between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, the government has been faced with subversion and armed attacks from a changing array of terrorist organizations representing both Sinhalese and Tamil interests.

The armed forces were slow in responding to this threat. At the time of independence, Sri Lanka had only a small, volunteer reserve force led primarily by British officers. After the establishment of the Royal Ceylon Army, Navy, and Air Force in the years following independence, the country continued to rely on volunteers to provide for its security; its small armed forces served mainly to assist the police in the maintenance of public order. Two major events in the 1970s and 1980s forced the government to break with this past practice and to give a higher priority to defense issues. The first was the 1971 insurrection by the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP) that caught the army largely unprepared and forced the government to rely on foreign military assistance to restore order. The second event, the communal rioting of July 1983, left thousands of Tamil civilians dead and fueled a Tamil insurgency strong enough to wrest control of the Jaffna Peninsula from the Sri Lankan government. Faced with these challenges, the government made important changes in the structure and size of the armed forces. It instituted a national draft in 1985, intensified its recruitment and training efforts, and devoted a greater percentage of the budget to its growing military needs.

In spite of these improvements, the Sri Lankan government found itself unable to deal with the military, political, and fiscal pressures caused by the Tamil insurgency. In July 1987, President Junius R. Jayewardene and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord providing a political solution to the conflict and allowing Indian peacekeeping troops to enforce the cease-fire and laying down of arms in the Northern Province. Continuing conflict on the terms of the accord led to a resumption of fighting in September 1987, with the Indian troops participating as active combatants in support of the Sri Lankan government. By December 1987, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) had increased to 30,000 troops, and Sinhalese political groups expressed a growing impatience at the extended presence of Indian forces. Although these troops were purportedly fighting on behalf of the Sri Lankan government, many Sinhalese still viewed them with grave suspicion and saw their continued presence as a challenge to Sri Lankan sovereignty.

Like the Sri Lankan armed forces, the national police experienced major changes as a result of the deterioration of public order in the 1970s and early 1980s. Previously an unarmed force organized along British lines, the police force was greatly expanded and provided with a variety of firearms in the wake of the 1971 uprising. The Tamil insurgency in the Northern and Eastern provinces prompted the creation of the Special Task Force, a police field force that played a major role in antiinsurgent operations in the 1980s. At the same time, the regular police force was supplemented by the formation of a local militia known as Home Guards.

The challenge of both Sinhalese and Tamil insurgent movements also brought substantial change to the criminal justice system. After an initial liberalization in the wake of the 1977 elections, the United National Party (UNP) government moved to expand the powers of the police, the armed forces, and the courts at the expense of civil liberties. Through emergency regulations and a variety of antiterrorist provisions, the government imposed temporary restrictions on the fundamental freedoms embodied in the Constitution.

Data as of October 1988

Country Listing

Sri Lanka Table of Contents