The Tamil Tiger rebels have long been known to use child soldiers in their extended campaign against the Sri Lankan government. The average age of the Tigers' child soldiers, according to UNICEF, is 16 years old.
But the disappearance of three children in this frontier town two weeks ago near a Tamil Tiger rebel stronghold has sparked a different kind of outrage. As large-scale hostilities return to this island nation, international human rights observers are now accusing the Sri Lankan Army of helping a militia group enlist children in fighting the Tamil rebels.
The new accusations come one day after Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, himself a former teenage soldier, declared a resumption to the violent struggle for an independent Tamil state. Many Sri Lankans who were once buoyed by optimism after a 2002 cease fire now worry that the forcible recruitment of child soldiers will rise sharply.
This is the first time, relatives of the missing boys say, that children as young as 11 years old have been abducted.
"This is a kidnapping, for sure. The children didn't run away," says Devaraj Amudharaj, a relative of one of the kidnapped boys, whom he says were neighbors and close friends. "We don't suspect anyone in particular. It could be the army, or the LTTE, or the Karuna group or some other armed group," he says, referring to the rebel militia Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Karuna group is a breakaway faction of the main Tamil Tiger rebel outfit. Led by Muralitharan Vinayagamoorthy, who is also known as Karuna, the group has a strong presence in eastern Sri Lanka, where they have been fighting against the Tiger militia since 2004.
Sri Lankan government forces are believed to be helping the Karunas kidnap young boys. UN Special Adviser Allan Rock directly accused the government of abetting child abductions at the end of a factfinding mission to Sri Lanka two weeks ago. US-based Human Rights Watch joined the UN envoy's allegations Monday, adding that the government has known about the Karuna group's kidnappings since at least June 2006.
"Official surprise at Ambassador Rock's allegations are not genuine," said Jo Becker of the US-based Human Rights Watch in a press release. "There's no way the Karuna forces could transport vanloads of abducted children along these roads without government forces knowing."
Despite the swelling chorus of angry human rights activists, right-wing politicians behind Sri Lanka's majority-Sinhalese government have vilified Mr. Rock, calling him a "Tiger" and a "village gossip." For their part, Human Rights Watch officials say they have "clear and compelling evidence" of government violations.
According to UNICEF communication officer Francis Mead, the only distinction between the Karunas and the Tamil Tigers is that while the former recruit only boys, the Tigers recruit both boys and girls.
"Since April this year, when the security situation began deteriorating, 315 children have been recruited by the LTTE and 145 by Karuna," says Mr. Mead.
But even if the government does aid child recruitment and kidnappings, UNICEF says the Tamil Tigers still have the largest number of child recruits since 2001, when the organization started collecting data.
"The total underage recruitment cases known to UNICEF, by the LTTE, are 5,794," says Mead.
Yet the Tamil Tigers rarely kidnap children, particularly in government areas, says Kumarakulasingham Karunavel, a former government employee and long-time Vavuniya resident. The lack of opportunities for regular employment, he says, drives young people to militancy.
"They're brainwashed to join," says Mr. Karunavel. "The only field of recreation for them is the fighting fields today."
Sri Lanka's unemployment rate is bloated by two decades of civil war. Among young people between age 15 and 24, 23.8 percent of males and 34 percent for females are unemployed, according to the 2002 Sri Lanka Labor Force Survey.
Young Sinhalese suffer as much as Tamils from the lean job market. Bleak unemployment prospects have also raised enlistment numbers in the official Sinhalese-dominated armed forces, according to journalist Mahamuni Subramanian.
The military insist that they comply with the minimum recruitment age of 18, but there are rumors that some soldiers are younger. After a year when hundreds of soldiers were killed, the government has launched a campaign to attract more candidates.
"They're going for the job. The salary is very high," says Mr. Subramaniam. The basic pay of an ordinary soldier with a minimum Grade 8 education is $160 per month while a civilian machine operator with a high school certificate gets only half that amount, he says.
In his annual policy speech Monday, Tiger rebel leader Prabhakaran called the 2002 Norway-brokered truce "defunct." The Tamil Tigers, he said, are committed to pursuing an independent state, as opposed to the federal solution of a united Sri Lanka agreed to in the cease-fire.
Prabhakaran dropped out of school as a teenager to found the Tamil Tiger group, but today his legend is larger than life. Although Prabhakaran is widely disparaged as a ruthless guerrilla, many Sri Lankan Tamils look up to him as their "national leader." The Tigers use a combination of myth and propaganda to seduce youths into enlisting, says Karunavel.
According to Tamil Tiger media spokesperson Daya Master, 18,472 "martyrs" have given up their lives between 1982 and 2006.