From desertions to contract-killing, where are the armed forces heading? By N Sathiya Moorthy

Reports that serving personnel of the armed forces are taking to contract-killing, that too during duty-hours to create an alibi for themselves, should shock the nation more than any previous threats to democracy, the failed coup-bid of the sixties and CDS Shavendra Silva defying President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the height of the Arargalaya protests as recently as the year before last. Why, even the continuing economic crisis pales into comparative insignificance if someone understands the seriousness and significance of what passes for increasing indiscipline in the nation’s armed forces.

During the war years, desertions bothered the armed forces. It was not only over the number of trained men lost in the process. It also smacked of indiscipline of the highest order, and reflected on the kind of lack-of-morale that could have spelt doom in other circumstances. It also owed to past experience when in earlier instances unit commanders had surrendered to the LTTE with high motivation – and with that valuable imported armoury that the terror-group could happily do with.

Yes, such desertions may have also owed to the then army commander Sarath Fonseka, since created the nation’s first and only Field Marshal, post-war, going on a massive recruitment-spree across the South. Militarily, it served the tested doctrine that to fight insurgencies, security forces should have a 10:1 upper-hand, not just a few hundreds or even thousands. On the socio-political front, massive recruitments also meant jobs for the unemployed youth in Sinhala South and fixed family incomes with monthly rations, were expected to keep national morale commitment to the war on a higher plane than earlier.

Yet, desertions continued. Even now, every year or two, there are calls for deserters to surrender. The response, at best, has been mixed, though there is no fear of annihilation in the war that was successfully fought out some 15 years back.


In the closing months of the war and more so afterwards, there used to be internal discussions if LTTE deserters and sleeper-cells as ordered by their destroyed command, would become gun-for-hire, both inside the country and more so, outside, especially in Europe and elsewhere. Most LTTE’s ‘military men’ went about in groups and answered to a unit commander of whatever kind, and many of their shocking killings were carried out by suicide-bombers. Yet, there was the case of the sharp-shooter killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar in his swimming pool, very late in the evening. That did leave a mark.

Western diplomats, both positioned in Colombo, and visiting from their home-office, and also academics and media persons had these questions somewhere in the back of their mind. Those who had the occasion and opportunity to quiz those in the know did ask them, but themselves did not have any ideas to offer.

The same applied to deserters from the armed forces during those weeks and months. Would their desertion be seen as unaccounted deaths at the LTTE’s hands that the government wanted to hide? Would they turn out to be rogues in the immediate society with their past training and prevailing mood of one-upmanship compared to his neighbour? Or, would they take to contract-killing, either in groups or individually, when hard-pressed for cash?

Wanton surrender

The question how many of the deserters had smuggled out their service weapons was also being sought and analysed inside the command but little is known of the outcomes of such studies. So was the report of the one-man/one-woman study commissioned by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on assuming office in 2005, about the possibility of army commanders indulging in ‘wanton surrender’ of large armouries to the LTTE, and the quid pro quo involved in such ‘deals’.

In comparison, at least some details of the three-man probe into CDS Shavendra Silva and the commands down the line disrespecting President Gota, their Supreme Commander, and also Defence Secretary, Kamal Gunaratne, elevated as full General long after he had quit the Services, got leaked in the media. But the incumbent government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is yet to announce its decision / action on the report.

White van era but…

At least the current media reports do not indicate if there is a pattern to the identities of those military personnel taking to contract-killing — whether they are from the army, navy or air force, or from all three. Likewise, if the police investigations into the matter, which the news report relies on, also talks about a pattern in terms of particular units, regiments or even native villages of those involved.

In the normal course, any keen observer would have questioned (at least to himself) how automatic rifles like AK-47 and AK-56 were used in the killing of individuals who were not any big name in politics or society, though maybe somebody at the lower/local level. To think that a group of guys holding those weapons would arrive in a vehicle and kill unarmed men, this time totalling five, in broad-daylight, smacks of the forgotten ‘white van’ era. But no one is anymore referring to the LTTE or the military intelligence in the current phase.

It only meant that the men with guns were keen to be seen as over-powering by their prospective victims and as deliverers by those who hired them. A professional killer would have been discreet and an amateur would still want to escape unless it was a spur-of-the-moment instance, where he would still have ‘self-defence’ and ‘grave provocation’ as defence if caught and produced before the courts.

This one thus sounded like a different kettle of fish. The police investigations, as reported, explains a lot. It also extends to the question of the armed troops on duty looking the other way when the homes and businesses of over 80 dignitaries starting with then President Gota, PM Ranil, now President, and a host of Rajapaksas and their party MPs and other leaders, were burnt down in precision-coordination during the Argalaya.

Today, in the run-up to the President’s poll, and a possible parliamentary election, before or after, the question is if the current gun-culture is a part of some kind of a messaging, to the political class, people at large or both. To the politicians, it’s a message for them to beware and not go high up. To the people, it’s about the continuing failure of the Law & Order machinery under the current dispensation. To both, it is a message that democracy is facing unprecedented and unprovoked challenges of a different kind, like the Aragalaya before it – or, is it?

And all of it only months after the government claimed that there was a great conspiracy to upset the apple-cart, for which armed training was given and taken in a resort, somewhere inside the country. The November deadline has come and gone, only that no one told you if it was circa 2023 or 2024!

(The writer is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst and Political Commentator. Email: