Sri Lanka Table of Contents
At independence the government inherited from the British a military establishment that was neither ethnically nor religiously representative of the population at large. Minorities, for example, were heavily overrepresented in the officer corps. Christians, who comprised about 8 percent of the population, accounted for about 50 percent of all officers. Ethnically, Tamils and Burghers, who together comprised less than 20 percent of the population, accounted for 40 percent of the officer corps. This unbalanced representation was the result of a number of deliberate policies and incidental developments under the British. As in India, the colonial government in Sri Lanka tended to favor certain minorities in the selection of both military and civil service posts. In addition, the greater willingness of the Tamils to attend Christian missionary schools gave them the advantage of knowing the language, faith, and value system of the colonial administration. These Christian schools were also more likely than their Buddhist counterparts to offer rigorous physical training; the student cadet corps that were common in the colonial tradition were anathema to the Buddhist pacifist orthodoxy. Finally, the largely Westernized Burgher population adapted more easily to the social and public values of a colonial force.
In the first few years of independence, the high representation of Christians and minorities in the military leadership was fully in step with the political currents of the time; the governments of Don Stephen Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala were dominated by a Westernized elite that preached accommodation with all ethnic groups. Starting in the mid-1950s, however, a new Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalism turned increasingly against the British-sponsored elite of the colonial period. Within the government, this tendency was reflected in the victory of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1956 elections. In the military, however, changes were much more gradual; most of the commissions that had become available in the newly created services were already filled, and the relatively young army had few officers approaching retirement age. As a result, this period was marked by an increasing strain between the civil and the military authorities. The government's program of nationalization and its attempt to establish a privileged place for Buddhism and the Sinhala language caused increasing conflict around the island. In January 1962, several high-ranking military officers were arrested and accused of planning a coup d'état. They reportedly had planned to restore order by detaining a number of prominent left-wing politicians from the Bandaranaike coalition and returning the UNP to office. By the time the conspiracy was made public, the original plans had already been abandoned. Nonetheless, the Bandaranaike government used the potential threat to bolster its pro-Buddhist campaign, making political capital from the fact that all of the conspirators had been Christians.
Despite the initial resistance from a number of military officers, the government succeeded gradually in recasting the armed forces in its own image. Recruitment at all levels became increasingly dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, and by mid-1983 Tamils accounted for less than 5 percent of all military personnel. Military training that previously had been conducted in a variety of languages was now limited to Sinhala and English. Also, under the leadership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the army was supplemented with the new Sinha Regiment, whose name and unprecedented lack of regimental colors stood in clear opposition to the British colonial regalia of the Ceylon Light Infantry. Even the Light Infantry took on a new Sinhalese cast when in 1961 it adopted an elephant named Kandula as its regimental mascot; as the Times of Ceylon was quick to point out, Kandula was the battle elephant of Dutthagamani (or Duttugemunu), the ancient Sinhalese king who was credited with driving the Tamils out of Sri Lanka in the second century B.C.
The Sinhalization of the armed forces continued under the United National Party government of President Jayewardene. The retirement of the British-educated cadre of Tamil and Burgher officers gradually depleted the ranks of minority members. At the same time, the growing ethnic divisions in the country and the deployment of the armed forces against the Tamil population in the Northern Province tended to discourage young Tamil males from pursuing a career in the military. By 1985 almost all enlisted personnel in the armed services were Sinhalese.
Data as of October 1988
Sri Lanka Table of Contents