In the days following independence from the British, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was truly an island of serendipity, deserving the name of Serendib that had been bestowed upon it by early travellers. When the Ceylon army was raised in 1949, under the command of a British peer, Brigadier the Earl of Caithness, it had a mere 3000 men.
The Royal Ceylon Navy, as it was then called, was raised a couple of years later and was indeed tiny, with just a couple of hundred men. Its pride and joy was its single ship HMCyS Vijaya, previously the HMS Flying Fish, an ocean-going minesweeper bought from the British. Old navy salts still chuckle about the Vijaya´s first voyage to England under the RCyN flag. Its docking at Plymouth was greeted by a local newspaper with the memorable headline “The Fleet Is In!”
The Royal Ceylon Air Force was no bigger. It was raised in 1950 with the ambitious idea of providing one air wing of three fighter squadrons to the South East Asia Command (SEAC). This was subsequently scaled down and the RCyAF, formed with less than a hundred men, returned six crated Vampires back to de Havilland, the manufacturers, still in their original packing. The authorities had decided that an air wing was beyond the country´s means and its tiny air force had to make do with Chipmunk trainer aircraft and a Balliol, until a small squadron of Jet Provosts was added later. The budget of the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs for 1948-49, was no more than SLR 20 million, which paid not only for the three armed services and the police, but also for the country´s small foreign office.
The armed forces, predictably fashioned on the British model, were originally intended to complement the regular police in internal security functions, and also to perform a ceremonial role. A military parade on National Day was part of the scene and crowds used to flock Colombo´s seafront Galle Face green to cheer the marching soldiers, sailors and airmen. The bands played, and cannons boomed a national salute and sometimes there was an air display. It was all spit and polish, not the blood and gore of later years.
Many Made Generals
This all changed in 1971 when thejanatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People´s Liberation Front, attempted a “hand bomb revolution” to topple Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike´s United Front government, which included communists and Trotskyists. The JVP´s homemade bombs packed in old cigarette and condensed milk tins may seem laughable today. But the threat then was serious and led to the rapid expansion and equipment of the armed forces and police. As a former commander later recounted, “That was when we fired our first shot in anger.”
Subsequent developments have been directly proportional to the internal security threats that Sri Lanka, as the country was renamedbyits 1972 Constitution, has faced. An army that was once commanded by a brigadier, now has a lieutenant general in command, a clutch of major generals and more brigadiers than once there were colonels. Two full generals are on the retired list and the deputy defence minister, the political boss of the armed forces, was promoted to that rank in February.
Troop strength is classified information, and even the budget estimates presented to Parliament do not specify the number of men in the armed forces. The press commonly uses a figure of 100.000 but well-informed sources say the total number is higher and rising. Given a population of 18 million, this is obviously no small change.
It is only 25 years since Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis argued with the Secretary to the Treasury for an additional SLR 0.5 million for the air force´s SLR 11 million vote. Defence expenditures today run at a massive SLR 38 billion, five percent of the country´s GNP and 12- percent of the budget. A civil war that bleeds the country of the flower of its youth and much of its treasure has added to the problems of two insurrections that in 1971 and 1988-89 took the country to the brink of anarchy.
The cost is frightening for a small country that lacks any threat of external aggression. Long gone are the days when Sri Lanka could boast that its defence expenditure was minuscule. A fanatically-motivated guerilla force of Tamil Tigers has compelled unaffordable militarisation with obvious implications both for democracy and development. Winding down seems a distant prospect even if the war is quickly ended. Armed and trained men on both sides of the lines cannot be overnight asked to turn swords into ploughshares.