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Lankan women choosing the army over marriage

Inside a fortified camp ringed by moats, barbed wire and bamboo thickets, new recruit Rajita de Silva plunges her bayonet into a dummy.

"The time has come for us to join the war and save our country,'' she says later at her training post.

De Silva, the 21-year-old daughter of a goldsmith, is a bit of a rare commodity in Sri Lanka. Military officials say young people with such a patriotic attitude and solid middle class background are becoming more and more reluctant to fight in the country's civil war, now in its 14th year.

Young Sri Lankans once saw a military career as a sure way to a good salary and social status. That was before the ethnic Tamil separatists took up arms against the government, controlled by the Sinhalese ethnic majority.

Now career-minded young people are avoiding the dangers of a bloody war, and the military finds itself competing for recruits against 200 or so foreign companies in Lanka to attract the best and brightest.

Even those it does sign up might not stick around for long: the military says more than 12,000 soldiers have deserted the army in recent months. Last month, it offered an amnesty for deserters and 4,400 people reported in.

Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean nation with 18 million people, has 114,000 people in military service. The government estimates the Tamil Tiger rebels have 5,000 fighters, but exact numbers are unknown.

Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, the military's top spokesman, said it has been particularly hard to find air force pilots, and motivated, intelligent candidates to serve as officers on the battlefield. He did not give recruiting figures.

The situation is so serious that the military has had to dip into the nation's pool of 35,000 police officers to support troops at the war front.

Though the government refuses to give consolidated casualty figures, records compiled by the Associated Press from military press statements suggest 500 government soldiers died in battle in the past three months. Eighty-six more died in the first week of August alone.

Every week, top Sri Lankan newspapers carry full-page color advertisements appealing for military volunteers. Radio and television announcements blare the same message, and the government asks village elders to try to persuade young people in rural Sri Lanka to fight.

"The choice is yours,'' says one ad showing a young man in jeans and old sports shoes next to one in a smart uniform.

The otherwise secretive Sri Lankan military recently invited journalists to one of its premier training centers to show off the kind of recruits it wants.

Manel Chandrakanthi, the 22-year-old daughter of an artist who helps restore Buddhist monasteries, said her elder brother is in the merchant navy, and one of his fellow sailors encouraged her to join the military.

"I could have had a normal life, go for higher studies, get married, have children and live happily,'' she said. "But, I chose to be in the army.''

Chandrakanthi will spend two and a half years at the Kotelawala Defense Academy at Ratmalana, on the seashore about 25 kilometres south of Colombo. The camp, heavily guarded against rebel attack, is the only institution that trains officers from all three wings of the armed forces.

"I have a dream,'' said de Silva, the goldsmith's daughter.

"One day, when I get married, have children and retire, I could tell them battlefield stories about how we saved our nation.''

The armed forces may be targeting young women as an untapped source of recruits. Military officials say half the fighters in any given Tamil rebel attack force are women.

Of the 107 cadets in this year's graduating class at Ratmalana, 17 are women. Currently there are only 50 female officers, compared to 2,000 male officers in the Sri Lankan army.

This is a good sign, that educated women are coming on their own,'' said Kumar Fernando, the commandant of the academy spread over 45 lush acres.

Both de Silva and Chandrakanthi are Sinhalese, the ethnic group that makes up 75 percent of the population and, according to military analysts, 96 percent of the army.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other Tamil militias are fighting for a separate nation, or at least autonomy, to preserve their language, culture and economic opportunities.

Between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died in the war so far.

"We want the war to end, but with victory on our side,'' said Chandrakanthi, the future army officer.


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