Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Sri Lankan soldiers turn mercenaries as 'hundreds' fight for Russia and Ukraine

(Captain Ranish Hewage(right) posing for a photograph with Ukrainian soldiers)

Sri Lankan soldiers have died fighting for and against the Russian army on the front lines in Ukraine, as “hundreds” of former soldiers have turned mercenaries in the midst of an economic crisis on the island.

An Al Jazeera report this week detailed the death of the most recent recruit to the Russian army from Sri Lanka. The soldier whose real name has been withheld to protect the identity of his family, enlisted to serve in Russia’s ‘auxiliary force’ on the front lines after quitting from Sri Lanka’s armed forces.

The Sri Lankan military stands accused of committing widespread abuses including rape, executions and repeatedly shelling hospitals. Tens of thousands of Tamils were massacred by the Sri Lankan military in 2009 alone, with none held accountable for their crimes.

With the island suffering from a financial crisis, Sri Lankans living in Russia were cited by Al Jazeera as stating that many were lured into the Russian military after being offered of salaries up to $3,000 a month and the prospect of Russian citizenship. They report that “hundreds of Sri Lankans are now serving with the Russian military in Ukraine”. 

The family of the Sri Lankan soldier who died in the fighting said he was taking home a salary of Rs. 20,000 (USD 92) in Sri Lanka. The soldier in question left the Sri Lankan army before approaching the foreign employment agency seeking jobs in Russia. 

His is reportedly the second Sri Lankan to have been killed fighting for Russia in Dontesk. At least three others were reportedly killed last year fighting for Ukraine.

In December Ranish Hewage, MM Priyantha and Rodney Jayasinghe, two other Sri Lankan men were killed fighting against Russian forces. Hewage was buried east of Kyiv but the bodies of the other two Sri Lankans were never recovered.

The Sri Lankan military remains one of the largest in the world per capita, despite the end of any Tamil armed resistance movements almost 15 years ago. The sheer size of the Sri Lankan military is staggering; in 2018, the World Bank estimated there were 317,000 service personnel in the country, twice the size of the UK’s regular forces. In some areas across the Tamil homeland, there  are as many as one soldier for every two civilians.

An investigation by CNN found that the Russian government last year announced a lucrative package for foreign fighters to join the country’s military. The package included at least $2,000 salary a month and a fast-tracked process to obtain a Russian passport.

Reports in the Sinhala press stated that the Sri Lankan State Intelligence Agency has been keenly following the recruitment of retired soldiers from Sri Lanka and had submitted a dossier to Defence Secretary Kamal Gunarathne, a man who also stands accused of war crimes. The dossier includes the names of 30 such Sri Lankan soldiers who have already left and 36 who are getting ready to leave. 

It is reported that the defence secretary has handed the investigation over to the Criminal Investigation Department so that agents who are offering these jobs can be tracked down. The Department in its investigation has found that agents were also retired members of the Sri Lankan military. 

The CID arrested two suspects who were operating a foreign employment agency in Kadawatha earlier this month on the charges of trafficking individuals to conflict zones in Ukraine. Investigations revealed that recruits had deposited Rs 1 million to a bank account owned by the lady who runs this foreign employment agency.

It is also learned that these individuals had left for Ukraine and Russia on tourist visas. The Sri Lankans were initially taken to New Delhi after which they were taken to Poland and then to Ukraine through Azerjiban. Out of the 12 individuals who had taken this route recently, 9 were turned away and three were jailed. Among the list of Sri Lankan recruits are soldiers from Sri Lanka’s air force, navy, and the army with a few civilians. 

Sri Lanka has sought to maintain close ties with Russia, even as Moscow faced condemnation globally for its invasion of Ukraine.

Read more from Al Jazeera here.

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.