Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Points about the Child Soldier Issue in Sri Lanka

by R. Cholan

1. All armies need to continuously recruit.  As soldiers age, their fighting capacity and their skills diminish.  So there is a need to replenish ‘aging’ soldiers (and also the disabled and the dead).  All countries (including ours here in the US) recruit ‘new’ soldiers, and do so continuously for this purpose.  The LTTE has the same necessity and compulsion (after all, there is no ‘settlement’ yet). 

2. People who have interacted with the LTTE leadership have told me that it is the policy of the LTTE at the ‘highest level’ not to recruit underage children.  But, (like all armies in this world) they do recruit ‘new’ soldiers, for reasons stated above.  The LTTE also has ‘recruiters’, who are lower in rank, just like in the other armies.  As in many government armies, these recruiters are given ‘quotas’ to fill.  Just like the recruiters of the different countries, LTTE recruiters also probably engage in ‘questionable’ practices. 

3. The LTTE also has additional problems.

(a). there are many ‘underage volunteers’.  Due to the years of war, poverty, broken homes, abusive (alcoholic and/or negligent) parents, etc., a number of children find ‘joining the LTTE’  to be a better ‘alternative.’  This way they get at least ‘a roof over their heads’ and ‘food.’

(b). Poverty-stricken parents also sometimes send their children to the LTTE for the same reason – ‘food’ and a ‘roof.’

(c) Children who have witnessed teenagers in their towns and villages being arrested on suspicion, held incommunicado (under the PTA), tortured, raped, disappeared, etc. at the hands of the SLA, find life with the LTTE ‘safer.’

4. The LTTE has a problem verifying the ages of recruits when they come to join.  If they are coming for the above-cited reasons, they would, of necessity, lie about their ages.  The LTTE has difficulty verifying their ages because:

(a) due to the ‘war,’ all children and young adults are stunted in growth, and it is difficult to tell their ages by looking at them.

(b) also due to the war, many Tamil people do not have birth certificates to prove their ages.

5. The LTTE has taken pains to address this issue.  They have had numerous discussions with the UNICEF officials, and also with Olara Ottunu, the UN Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, to resolve this issue.  They have taken great pains to release hundreds of children (at the last count nearly 1,500), once they find them to be ‘underaged’ – not merely those on the list provided by the UNICEF, but also a number of others NOT on the UNICEF lists. 

6. Most complaints are from the east, and the government-controlled areas.  We now know that Karuna did recruit underaged children in the east.  When Karuna ran away, most fighters went home.  Initially, the LTTE did go around asking those fighters to come back, but the underaged children were sent home.  This all on record. 

7. There is an additional problem when children join (or parents send their children to the LTTE) ‘voluntarily,’ if the rest of the family lives in government-controlled areas.  SLA soldiers, STF personnel and the police go around asking questions about these children who are ‘missing,’ not only from the immediate families, but also from the neighbors. 

What are options for the family of those who have joined the LTTE in this situation?  Tell the ‘truth’ and earn the wrath of the SLA, or ‘lie’ and say that “the LTTE forcibly took their children?”  Just think about it. 

If they choose the latter option, they have to keep up the ‘lie,’ even when NGOs (HRW, UNICEF) come knocking.  Secrets are difficult to keep in a village, in the volatile situation in the SLA-controlled areas.  This may be the reason why most complaints of forcible recruitment are from the government-controlled areas.  Of course, one can argue that parents in the LTTE-controlled areas would not dare complain, but this is not absolute.  There is considerable doubt on what these claims really mean. 

8. The issue of ‘child soldiers’ is a matter that needs a thorough investigation.  We Tamil expatriates will never, ever, endorse the practice of using child soldiers. [For purposes of the most recent international treaties, which may or may not apply to the island's situation, a child is anyone under 18.] 

There are many unanswered questions, however.  It is hard for us to believe that “the LTTE fought many conventional battles against a hundred-times better equipped/armed SLA, and 'won,' with 'child soldiers, forcibly recruited and compelled to fight against their will.' 

This defies common sense. 

9. Only a proper investigation, that can overcome the difficulties cited above, could reveal the truth.  Such an investigation is impossible to conduct unless the peace process is moved forwards. Current information, therefore, is inevitably incomplete.

10.  Those interested in weakening the Tamil cause use the child soldier issue to hurt the moral 'case' of the Tamils.  It is not possible to rationally discuss the intricacies of the problem with those who raise the child soldier issue with this purpose in mind.  People who genuinely care about the well-being of Tamil children will also be willing to talk about malnutrition, poor schooling, child labor, broken families, refugees, etc.

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Posted August 3, 2005