An evolving army and its role through time
We conclude today Sergei de Silva- Ranasinghe’s article on the early days of the Sri Lanka Army
From its inception, there was considerable emphasis on planning a force structure geared for internal security operations. The role of the Ceylon Army was designed to undertake four key functions, indicative of a developing nation: (a) Defend the nation from external foreign aggression; (b) Assist civilian administration in internal security, such as Task Force Anti-Illicit-Immigration (TaFII), 1953 Hartal, 1956 Gal Oya Valley riots, 1958 riots and Ceylon’s first post-independence insurrection in 1971; (c) Conduct labour intensive national development tasks such as assistance to the Mahaweli Development Project, agrarian food cultivation and harvesting in 1967 and 1968 on a 500-acre farm near Walawe, a 600- acre farm at Padaviya and a poultry farm at Ridiyagama; (d) Manage essential services by operating and maintaining important government services during countless strikes, emphasised by the 1961 Colombo Port Strike.

In addition, estimates indicate that throughout the five years after the proclamation of emergency rule since the 1958 riots, emergency rule had lasted three years. At least seven of the fourteen-year period from 1958 to 1972 were governed under emergency law. Strikes and internal security operations were so frequent and draining on the regular army that successive governments were forced, by the 1960s, to expand and mobilise the CVF on an almost constant basis to support the regular army.

Task Force Anti-Illicit Immigration
The first internal security operation of the CA was not under emergency duty, but in a coast watching and interception role. This was in support of Royal Ceylon Navy coastal patrols and police operations against an influx of illegal South Indian immigrants brought in by smugglers from Ceylon and India, as affirmed by Lieutenant Colonel H.W.G. Wijeyekoon: “The checking of illicit immigration from South India was the national problem which set off this operation. Illicit immigration had assumed alarmingly large proportions and the Police service had neither the numbers nor the organisation to cope with the initial task of detecting the landings. The army was therefore called out in aid of the Civil Power and undertook to detect landings along a 72 mile stretch of coastline starting at Palagamunai, nine miles north of Mannar, right round the island of Mannar, and terminating at Achchankulam, twelve miles south of Mannar. The bulk of the illicit landings were taking place in this area. The army also undertook to watch the coast by the mouth of the Kal Aru just north of the Wilpattu Game Sanctuary.”

Starting in 1952, ‘Operation Monty’ was expanded and renamed as Task Force Anti-Illicit Immigration (TaFII) in 1963. It also transpired to be the CA’s longest single operational deployment lasting 21 years. The CA’s contribution, referred to as ‘Army Force M’, initially incorporated a full strength infantry battalion and auxiliaries stationed on the Mannar district seaboard. With the proliferation of indigenous separatist groups after 1972, the primary role of TaFII expanded to a counter-insurgency operational outfit until it was disbanded in 1981.

1953 hartal
The advent of a hartal or mass strike on August 12, 1953, tested and stretched the army’s efficiency for the first time. Organised by the left wing parties and trade unions, the protest which involved many thousands was against the government’s abrogation of a rice subsidy, which substantially escalated the price of rice, the nation’s staple food. The protest rapidly turned into major civil unrest, mainly around Colombo, leading to a dozen deaths. The government was compelled to mobilise the military under emergency regulations to its first encounter.

It was in this setting that the CA first made its presence felt. The situation stretched resources, compelling the CA to use 200 batmen, orderlies and messengers in operations, including some recruits who had not completed their full training requirements. However, the CA swiftly restored order.

In an evaluation of the 1953 hartal, the CA’s first Ceylonese Commander, Major General A.M. Muttukumaru, provided an assessment of the army’s performance: “The last time I had been in a comparable situation was in 1947 when the CDF was recalled from being mobilised for action against trade unionists. The troops were seasoned and took their duties readily… Altogether, the inexperienced regulars reacted correctly to the situation and fully appreciated the need not only for ‘minimum force’ as necessary but also for a greater degree of force when dealing with relatively recalcitrant opponents.”

1956 Gal Oya Valley riots
Following the 1956 elections and the introduction of Sinhala as the country’s official language, the first major outbreak of ethnic violence occurred leading to the deaths of around 150 people. It was the worst sectarian violence since the 1915 riots, 41 years previously. The unrest initially started in Colombo but was quickly suppressed. However, it remained severe in the Eastern Province’s Gal Oya Valley, which due to inadequate police resources to contain the unrest, led to a collapse of government authority.

The government declared an emergency in the Eastern Province and rushed army units to contain the spread of violence. Much like the 1953 hartal, the army again found itself under resourced to meet the exigencies of the situation, a fact which Major General A.M. Muttukumaru depicted: “The army was fully stretched to deal with the situation… The situation was unquestionably difficult because of the violence that the soldiers experienced, involving the use of much more than the ‘minimum force’ adopted in ‘aid to civil power’ operations.”

1958 Riots
The outbreak of islandwide ethnic violence from May 24-27, 1958, saw for the first time the deployment of military personnel under emergency proclamations throughout the entire island, where Colombo and the North and East of the country witnessed the worst violence leading to over 300 deaths. Once authorised to use force to bring back order, Ceylon’s Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, looked to the army and gave strict orders against militant and criminal elements, “Clear them out even if you have to sh-sh-sh-shoot them”, as stated by Tarzie Vittachi.

In the North Central district dozens of thugs were shot dead by soldiers, especially around Anuradhapura and Padaviya, where significant contact took place. In some areas of the East, there was open resistance by militant civilians armed with shotguns and rifles, as recalled by a soldier of the Ceylon Army Ordnance Corps, “At the Kallady bridge we had trouble… they shot at Colonel Richard Udugama, the Commanding Officer for operations in the Batticaloa district.”

In dealing with the crisis, the CA also played a fundamentally important humanitarian role. The Ceylon Engineers constructed temporary accommodation and ancillary services for an estimated 10,000 refugees. The Ceylon Army Service Corps was tasked to feed refugees and transport them to selected temporary refugee camps.

1961 Colombo Port strike
A significant feature of Sri Lanka’s political landscape was the endless strikes that almost crippled the island’s economy. Due to strikes being so constant and debilitating successive governments relied heavily on the army. This ensured that practically every unit of the army, including the combat units, were deployed on ‘strike breaking’ operations. The governments in power endorsed the creation of units specifically designed for ‘strike breaking’ purposes. These units included the Post and Telegraph Signals Regiment (c.1955-1956), Ceylon Railway Engineer Regiment (c.1955-1956), Ceylon Army National Defence Corps (c.1958-1963) and most importantly the formation and deployment from 1959-1962 of five CVF battalions, comprising 9,000 Ceylon Army Pioneer Corps reservists at its peak, needed to operate Colombo port facilities.

This operation was the most extensive usage of troops for strike breaking purposes in the army’s history, the significance of which was explained by Major General H.W.G. Wijeyekoon: “The operation came into force on 18th December 1961. The army has been deployed in the Port for just over a month now. I have seen for myself and I have heard from the Director Port Operations, the Port Commission and the Port Cargo Corporation officials and even from outsiders that the Army had been doing an excellent job of work in the Port. As a result of the Colombo Harbour not having come back to normal, where approximately 8,000 to 10,000 tons of cargo, are unloaded per day, foreign shippers have threatened to either by-pass Colombo and unload cargo for Ceylon in other Ports, or are refusing to carry any cargo for Ceylon. It is for this reason that Port Operations were intensified and all types of cargo are now being handled. The loading of essential export cargo, tea, rubber, desiccated coconut etc., are also essential to ensure that world markets are supplied with these goods and our revenue increased.”

1971 Insurrection
The ultra-left insurrection of 1971 was the first serious armed challenge to the CA, which resulted in Ceylon’s first post-independence insurrection. Once the insurrection was successfully confronted, there was a greater drive to train soldiers in counter-insurgency operations, as confirmed by the CA’s Commander, Lieutenant General D.S. Attygalle: “With the advent of this new era in the operational activities of the army a complete re-organization of the army was carried out in the interest of national security.” It was not long after this event that post-independence Ceylon moved towards the status of a republic and a new era of challenges.

Army of the Republic
Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka under a new republican constitution on May 22, 1972. This change also brought a re-designation of the army’s regimental insignia ending the era of the CA, which was renamed the Sri Lanka Army. It also, not long after, coincidentally marked the dawn of a new era, the rise of indigenous separatist organisations, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The contemporary Sri Lanka Army’s role and organisation has expanded and diversified considerably since the dawn of separatism in 1972. It has transformed into a modern military organisation and since 1983 has engaged in three phases of combat against secessionist groups in a conflict commonly referred to as the ‘Eelam War’. By 1998 the army had expanded to an unprecedented total strength of 125,616 (4,233 regular officers and 75,083 other ranks; 1,510 reserve officers and 44,790 other ranks) encompassing 21 separate regiments and corps, five infantry regiments, containing 25 regular infantry and 47 volunteer infantry/guard battalions, trained and seasoned in counter-insurgency operations.

The post-1972 era to-date demonstrates how significantly the CA era of bygone days has, as an institution, passed into history.

The writer is a researcher in ‘Sri Lanka Military History, Defence and Strategic Analysis’.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.