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19th July 1998

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How Tigers prey on cubs

We reproduce "Childhood - A Continuous Casualty of the Conflict in Sri Lanka" by Rohan Gunaratna published in Jane's Intelligence Review July 1998.

In defiance of mounting international opinion against the use of children in warfare, guerrillas and terrorists are increasingly using children in their military campaigns. With under-aged combatants proving to be effective spies, couriers and suppliers as well as back-up and frontline fighters, children in conflict-ridden areas are becoming a target for recruitment.

International and domestic conventions define childhood as life up to the age of 18. Currently, there is a debate as to whether compulsory or voluntary recruitment to the armed forces should be set at 15 or 18. Child right activists are campaigning at international, national and local level to raise the minimum age to 18. However, there is no international organisation or mechanism either to regulate or lobby against guerrilla and terrorist organisations recruiting children into their ranks.

Child units have featured prominently in international and internal conflicts in recent years, serving in both state and nonstate forces in countries such as Liberia, Cambodia, Sudan, Guatemala and Myannmar. They featured in at least a third of the 50 odd internal conflicts that were ongoing in 1997, most of which have continued into 1998 and many with increasing intensity. Armed conflicts during the last decade left two million children killed. One million orphaned or separated, five million disabled, 10 million psychologically traumatised and 12 million homeless.

Cutting edge

In the world's deadliest current conflicts, children feature most prominently in the protracted guerrilla and terrorist campaign of Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF) highlighted the Sri Lankan rebel group's practice of aiming its propaganda specifically at school children.

The LTTE is a leading-edge rebel group fighting for an independent Tamil monoethnic state in north-eastern Sri Lanka. The LTTE - estimated to be 14,000 - strong employs adults and children as rank and file. Both male and female fighters participate in guerrilla and terrorist attacks against military, political, economic, religious and cultural targets. Now in its 24th year of existence and 15th year of combat, the LTTE is assessed by the international security and intelligence community as the deadliest contemporary guerrilla terrorist group. It has built a tradition of senior personnel leading offensive operations and has a rapid turnover of new units.

The LTTE is perhaps the world's first rebel group with recruits drawn from a younger age range. Sri Lanka's Directorate of Military Intelligence estimates that 60 per cent of LTTE fighters are below the age of 18. Even if this figure is exaggerated, an assessment of the LTTE fighters that have been killed in combat reveals that 40 per cent of its fighting force are both males and females between nine and 18 years of age. Over the years, the combat efficiency, technological innovation and leadership qualities of the LTTE have been integrated into the younger fighting units.

Loyal to the last

The Sri Lankan experience reveals that children are receptive to high levels of indoctrination, willing to engage in high-risk operations and are obedient. Modern assault rifles such as the M 16, AK-47 and Type 56 are lightweight, easy to fire and require minimum training. Conventionally trained soldiers and policemen are also less likely to identify women and children as threats.

To be continued

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