The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

13th April 1997



The question of recruitment to the LTTE

The cat, a bell and a few strategists

By D. Sivaram

Many arguments about the best and most effective way of defeating or suppressing armed Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka have been ventured in earnest since the beginning of the Eelam War almost fourteen years ago.

The latest of these can be stated thus:

‘The LTTE’s recruitment base is showing clear signs of diminishing such as the fact that they are relying more and more on women and children for new recruits. This is an irreversible trend given the social and economic realities of the northeast, whereas the army can continue to draw recruits from a population which is at least sixty percent larger than the one on which the Tigers have to depend. Furthermore, the total strength of the Tigers being one tenth or slightly higher than that of the army, manpower losses which they sustain in battles will have ten times the impact such losses can have on the security forces. Therefore, ‘manpower’ shortages will, in the foreseeable future, impel the LTTE to abandon the military option or reduce it to an insignificant and marginal guerrilla organization.’

There were some who were inclined to view this assertion rather as a manifestation of wishful thinking and despair following the fall of Mullaithivu and the setbacks in Paranthan, Pulukunavi etc.,-an embarrassed fumbler’s tactical refuge, than a sensible prediction of the Eelam War’s trajectory in the coming years.

However, I thought it necessary to examine the merits and faults, if any, of this line of thinking after hearing slightly different versions of the argument from security affairs specialists on both sides of the Atlantic- and also at the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), according to a recent publication, had estimated in 1995 that there were fourteen thousand fighting members in the Liberation Tigers. A senior member of the LTTE, however, disputed this estimate, saying that it is higher. But he was not ready to divulge the actual figure. But I think that it might be reasonable to assume that the DMI assessment is not flagrantly off the mark with respect to the number of troops the LTTE has stationed in its camps in the northeast.

The Tamils of the north and east including those who came from the hill country and settled down there following the pogroms of 58' and 77' were approximately 1,429,942 according to the ’81 census. There are currently about 1.7 million Tamils in the Northeast. Of these, around 958,643 people live in areas controlled by the LTTE or where the army is not present.

The total population, both permanent and internally displaced of what are officially categorized as the uncleared areas of the four districts of the Vanni (Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi) was 681,358 as at 28.2.97 according to an official assessment. There are some who are inclined to think that there are no more than four hundred thousand people in the Vanni. This, however, is a very impressionistic view which has no basis even in the assessments ‘unofficially’ made by the government.

And approximately 207,285 (calculated from 94-95 mid year estimates) live in the uncleared areas of the Batticaloa district.(Seventy six percent of the district’s population according to an official estimate are in the rural parts. At least 65 percent of Batticaloa’s population-207,285- are in the uncleared areas, which are controlled by the Tigers).Then there are about 70,000 scattered in those sectors of Trincomalee (35,000), Ampara (15,000) and Jaffna (20,000) districts where the security forces are not present.

This means at least fifty-six percent of the Tamil population in the Northeast is not under the government’s direct supervision. And approximately 888,643 ( this is a minimum figure which is 52 percent of the Tamil population in N-E) live in areas dominated by the Liberation Tigers.

The LTTE raised its present strength between 1991 and ‘95 from the population which lived in areas controlled or dominated by the organization during that period. This, if we deduct the populations that were in the cleared areas of the East and the Vanni (114,097) at that time amounting to about five hundred thousand, was about 1.2 million. Recruitment in cleared areas was negligible during this period. Hence the LTTE’s recruitment ratio as a percentage of the base population was 1.1

The Sinhala population is about 13.4 million (According to the demographic survey conducted by the Dept. of Census and Statistics in 94 there are 12,556,328 Sinhalese in the country excluding the northeast. If we add those presently living in Trincomalee, Ampara, and Weli Oya and the annual growth rate, we get an approximate figure.) The army’s current strength is estimated at 110,000 which is .82 percent of the Sinhala population base. We have witnessed several attempts in recent years to take in a large number of young people into the army from the south, combined with a growing number of incentives and the removal of some standard criteria for military recruitment. The majority which was recruited thus has gone to replenish the ranks. The maximum degree to which the army can raise its manpower, other things being equal, may not therefore go much beyond .82 percent of the Sinhala population.

(Though not substantial, the Muslims who were 7.1 percent of the island’s population in 81' also form part of the government’s recruitment grounds. And the up country Tamils have been a potential but very minor recruitment base for the Tigers despite the speculations of some Cassandras. In my computations both are taken as negligible components. )

In this connection, the work of the military sociologist Stanislav Andreski might be mentioned. His is the only academic treatise (‘Military Organization and Society’) on the connection between populations and the quantum of organized fighting men they can produce and sustain. He is best known among defence specialists for introducing the concept of Military Participation Ratio (MPR), by which, when other factors are taken into account, the degree to which a society is militarised may be measured. Andreski cites the example of Trek Boers and Cossacks who were characterized by high MPR. According to the caste based census of the Tamils in South India taken by the British in 1891, twenty six percent of the population belonged to the traditional military castes.(The British army’s recruitment handbook on the ‘Madras Classes’ of 1938 is a remarkable historical document on drafting Tamils into a modern army) Some military historians argue that a ten percent MPR is about the maximum a society can tolerate while continuing to function at normal levels of efficiency. The American Civil War in which the South and the North between them raised three million out of a pre-war population of 32 million-10 percent, is cited as an instance.

Such high MPRs which began with the levee en masse in France in 1793 and have been witnessed in some revolutionary or anti-colonial upheavals since World War II appear almost impossible in this era due to a number of social and economic reasons.(William Mc Neil, however, argues in ‘The Pursuit of Power’, his widely quoted classic on comparative military history, that very high MPR in eighteenth century England and France helped avert population pressure and the attendant phenomenon of mass poverty.) The military historians who consider ten percent the maximum generally tend to ignore some social and economical factors which externally or indirectly helped maintain normal levels of efficiency in situations they have examined. The role of the black slaves in the American economy during the civil war is not reckoned with for instance. And more importantly, there is a vast difference between the basic conditions which ensured ‘the normal levels of efficiency’ in a nineteenth century society and those required for the purpose in an economy rapidly integrating into the global dynamics of late twentieth century. I think that a maximum force level that may occasion anything close to five percent MPR can upset the minimum equilibrium required to efficiently run a democratic state in our times. Attempting to extract exceedingly more than a settled peace time society’s ‘normal’ MPR, which in modern states has to be induced anyway, in a particular situation- in this case the need to fight the Eelam War - can inevitably create economic and political instability. This is why the practice of universal conscription which gave rise to very high MPRs in the West from the late eighteenth century until World War II was abandoned in modern times.

On the other hand societies subjected to nationalist and revolutionary upheavals since World War II have, in many instances, shown remarkably high MPRs. Even in the war torn northeast, as we shall see later in a case study, the districts most affected by acute conflict conditions have high MPRs.

This is the basic difference we have to keep in mind when considering recruitment levels in the northeast and rest of the country.

The south, despite the Eelam War, remains socially, politically and economically undisturbed. (The JVP insurrection came and went. The equilibrium was not upset for more than two years.) The .82 MPR in the South can be taken as standard - it was increased from .12 percent in 1983 to its current level and has remained steady.

In contrast, the various disturbances in the socio-economic equilibrium among Tamils since 1977 in the context of militant nationalism have impelled the Military Participation Ratio among them through several phases as we shall see later. It shot up from .06 before July 1983 to more than 2.8 by mid 1985, was then brought down to .3 in 88-89, and went up again almost overnight in 1990 to 1.5, coming to level around 1993 at 1.1. A scrutiny of these phases will show that no one can rest assured that war weariness can induce a permanently low MPR in the northeast or that the geographical limits of the recruitment grounds would remain static under all conditions of the conflict. To be continued next week

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