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18th October 1998

Why do they leave

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The Government has offered yet another amnesty to Army deserters- the 9th in two years. The Sunday Times reports this newest drive to search for deserters.

It was around midnight when a police team last week stormed the residence of soldier Samarapala at Narahenpita. He had sustained gunshot injuries and thereafter not reported to work for the past three months. The soldier was taken into custody and handed over to military police to be sent back to the battlefront.

The soldier was arrested as part of an island-wide operation which came in to effect immediately after the Kilinochi and Manakulam debacle which left at least 900 soldiers dead or missing in action. By Friday at least 2,889 army deserters had returned or had been arrested out of some 15,000 soldiers who had deserted.

In the after month of the recent incident which forced more soldiers out of the battlefront it was decided more replacements were nescessary. The military decided to seek the services of Samurdhi Animators to track down the deserters as the government did earlier this year.

Police station throughout the island were handed over lists of deserters to carry out search operations-promoting the police to deploy special team to lookout for the soldiers.

Police Headquarters estimated about 30,000 soldiers were yet to return to duty, but the Chief Military spokesman, Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon said they were looking for about 12,000 more soldiers who have not reported to work.

The figure of deserters given by the military has been contradictory on many occasions. Army Commander, Lt. General Daluwatte said in May the Army was looking for about deserters. At the end of the amnesty extended to deserters the military said at least 14,000 soldiers had returned.

Again in period less than five months the Government is on the lookout for 12,000 deserters-going by the military spokesman.

Following a top level meeting the District Secretaries were informed by telephone about the role they are expected to play in helping the government locate missing service personnel meeting was then called by the District Secretaries to brief divisional Secretaries and other relevant government organisations. They in return report to the police who make the arrests.

Government official in the Moneragala district said, "we can't persuade deserters to return because so many have died in battle from this district. Last time the divisional Secretariat motivated deserters to return. Now relatives of those soldiers find fault with the secretariat.

In Kurunegala, District Secretary R.P.E. Bandara said "we have informed the Divisional secretariat, Grama Niladhari, and Samurdhi Animators to co-operate and induce the army deserters to come back. Some have already reported and a few other arrested.

"The Army and Police are handling this. We are only coordinating with a considerable amount of public support, "an official from the Humbantota District secretariats said. He quipped, "we are chasing them , it is not that there are coming back voluntarily."

Badulla District Secretary W.M.A. Wijekoon said, "We have written to deserters and Grama Sevekas and Samurdhi Niyamaka's deliver

The letters to their homes.

"We are trying to motivate them return. Rather than arrest them we are motivating them through their parents, relations and friends." An official from the Anuradhapura district said.

Similar co-ordination has been carried out by other District Secretariats as well, with the police and the army acting on information received. District Secretaries from Matara , Puttalam, Trincomalee were other areas that the Sunday Times contacted.

The reason for deserting the military range from family problems, personal reasons, and failure of the military to provide proper facilities.

"In one case a soldier who called over at a bank to obtain a loan was told to come two weeks later. The Soldier who was on three weeks leave had already spent one week to get to his village in the deep south," an ex-military officer who did not want to be quoted said.

Major W.R. Wickramanayake of the Directorate of Psychological operations, Sri Lanka army said psychological drawbacks also contribute to personal deserting the army.

Elaborating on this he said when civilians breakdown under strain and even attempt suicide, it is natural that soldiers at the battlefront are tempered to deserted may be due to frustration and the pressure put on them. "Some of them cant stand the training," he explained.

Counseling is available at all times and when a deserter returns this facility helps to ease their stress to some extent, Major Wickramanayake said.

Entering the military would mean depriving oneself of a family life and all the social engagements that are a part of it. The period of leave granted to a soldier operating in an operational area is between 7-10 days after a month of service. For those serving in Colombo there is no leave as such except on request and still it would be on a standby basis.

Soldiers who go home on leave are reluctant to return as the condition in camps are so rigid, and they miss the intimacy of family life. And every time they bid good-bye to their loved ones, they feel it could be the last time they'll do so.

As the arrests of deserters continues the Government on Friday decided to grant a three-day amnesty and offered relief for the returning soldiers. Accordingly the period soldiers had failed to return would be considered as a period of no pay leave and soon after they report to work their salary would be restored.

The amnesty was the ninth such amnesty offered in two years.

Military Spokesman Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon said "so far, this year, two amnesties have been granted and the last was in May this year.

"If they overstay their leave period they always fear they would be severely punished and perhaps be demoted and therefore they are afraid to return, Brigadier Tennakoon said.

Service personnel are considered to be deserters, after 21 days of not reporting to work. Until then they are considered absentees. Brigadier Tennakoon said, generally, the deserters are from the North Western, Southern and North Central Provinces.

He also said the airport has been alerted to prevent any deserters from leaving the country. In the case of deserters who seek employment in security firms and other companies, the Military Spokesman said, :We can't prevent them being employed,". Yet he confirmed that strict action would be taken against those who employ deserters.

Nonetheless these fugitives find means of survival by working as labourers, three wheeler drivers and in other inconspicuous jobs.

Explaining the procedure that takes place when a deserter returns, the Brigadier said, "Since they're out of touch the first thing we do is give them a course of training. After that we give them their equipment, their kit and after training they will be sent back to their regiments".

Former Army Commander Lieutenant General Dennis Perera said "there were no deserters as there was no reasons for them to desert during our period. We may have had one or two desertions but it did not constitute a serious problem." Giving his views on the present situation, he said today's recruits are not used to this rigid discipline and the ongoing war aggravates the problem.

Former Director of Personnel Administration and Commander Battalion, Major General Henry Vijaya Athukorale giving his views said, during his time the number of deserters were minimal. "They desert because they've confronted with problems," he said. "I'm not aware of the present administration system, but in my time there was a request hour and once a week, irrespective of rank and file of soldiers they put forward their problems and we did our best to solve them,".

The Major General also said the soldiers must be assured that they are led in the correct path and that leadership plays an important role. "The whole thing is centred around the leader," he said.

Referring to other related problems that a soldier confronts he said that when they go home on leave they are faced with the problem of transport. Since there are many who visit their families, these weary soldiers have to wait for their turn to board the plane. "By that time he finds half of his leave already over. This problem is more acute when servicemen are transported by ship," he emphasised. "This means they have only a short time to spend with their families.

During his time servicemen granted 28 days privilege leave, 14 days casual leave and 48 hour pass leave on request.

Another problem that the Major General drew attention to was the corruption and immoral behaviour of the leaders in the armed force. "The soldiers tend to think if the big shots can enjoy life, why can't they?" however, he also said some soldiers desert because of their indisciplined attitude. He also said the present system of the Army granting an amnesty to deserters and not punishing them was a weak stance. This can be a reason why soldiers don't feel desertion is a serious matter since they know they won't be punished, he said.

Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Crimes and Crime Intelligence and Organised Crime, H. M. G. B. Kotakadeniya said the crime rate has been steadily increasing because Army deserters are at large.

"The involvement of army deserters being involved in crime cases have been reported from several parts of the country. One reason why we want to arrest these deserters is to curb this spate of crime," he said.

He said soon after the deserters are arrested they are screened to ensure that they are not wanted for any serious criminal activities.

In Panadura five deserters who were arrested escaped from the cell after assaulting the Policeman on duty.

Police said that in some instances they were getting information from neighbours who were not on good terms with families of soldiers. "This makes our job easier," a Police officer from a southern Police station said.

The problem of deserting the Army during military operations is not new, but many of the deserters have their reasons for quitting. Therefore if the Government is to tackle this problem it should look into these reasons.

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