The Long – suffering Tamil ethnicity in Sri Lanka is once again getting apprehensive and fearful!
The war between the Security forces of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended three years ago. This resulted in one set of problems faced by ordinary Tamils becoming non – existent. Some problems continued while a new set of problems also emerged.
Now another problem that had seemingly ended is showing signs of re-emerging in a big way.
This is the spectre of enforced disappearances where people are abducted brazenly by armed persons in whte vans or go missing without a trace. This problem that had seemingly ended after the war is now displaying a new resurgence.
It is true that “white vanning” the description given to enforced disappearances never did go away completely. It did linger erupting sporadically here and there amidst intervals. But now disappearances are making appearances on a large scale again.
The past six months from October 2011 to March 2012 have seen 56 cases of reported disappearances. The months of February and March saw 29 disappearances.In one instance the abducted person was released due to political pressure purportedly from the President and defence secretary.
Of the 29 incidents during Feb-Mar months 24 were classified as clear abductions and five as missing. Most of the abductions were done by armed personnel in white vans
16 of the 29 incidents occurred in the Colombo district and 8 in Jaffna district.Unlike the previous season of disappearances five years ago where most victims were Tamils the current phenomenon reveals a mixed bag of victims not restricted to Tamils alone
Despite this many Tamils living in different parts of the Country are getting nervous and worried. Being members of a vulnerable minority with vivid memories of being targets of mass-scale disappearances a few years ago the community frets and fears.
The mood in the Country following the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka makes Tamils more apprehensive. The conduct of Tamil politicians and mass media during this fateful period have angered powerful elements in the country. As such ordinary Tamils are afraid that revenge would be unleashed on them.. One certainly hopes these fears will prove to be liars but they cannot be dismissed lightly at this juncture.
The plants in the media such as the threat about 150 Tigers trained in India infiltrating the Island etc exacerbate these fears. The worry is that this will be used as a pretext to white van young Tamils suspected of being tigers. Tamil entrepreneurs may become targets again is another fear. Paranoid?Perhaps! but the fear is palpable.
There is a creeping sense of negative déjà vu! Memories of the unsavoury not so distant past are revived.
Democratic Peoples Front Leader and former MP Mano Ganesan was of yeoman service to the families of victims when disappearances were at their highest.He was the livewire of the Civil monitoring Commission chaired by Siritunga Jayasuriya that monitored disappearances and provided some solace to affected families.
I recall a meeting organized by Mano Ganesan in April 2007 where families of victims were able to meet Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and articulate their problems.
Sadly the owner of the Hall in which the meeting was held was brutally murdered a few days later
One cannot forget what happened then!
Mano was quoted in an AP news report on this issue recently-
“ Mano Ganeshan of the Civil Monitoring Committee that gathered information on civilian disappearances during the country’s civil war said Monday that abductions are rising again with 37 cases being reported in the past two months” the AFP report stated.
Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to relive it again and again!
I found an article written by me five years ago in April 2007 on the abduction of Tamils and the meeting held in Colombo on April 9th. 2007.
Many of the points in the article are applicable now. The demands articulated at the meeting have a universality transcending time
One can only hope and pray that the problem of involuntary disappearances does not assume gigantic proportions in the days to come as what happened in the days of the past
I am reproducing that article again on my Blog now to draw attention to fears among Tamils about the reappearance of disappearances and to the forgotten human dimension in this issue.
Here it is Friends-DBSJ
A demonstrator cries while holding a picture of her relative who went missing during Sri Lanka’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as she takes part in a protest in Colombo September 9, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters via International Crisis Group
Dear Ones of “Disappeared” in depths of Despair
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
- A Tamil multi – millionaire businessman accused of attempting to de–fraud Customs goes “missing” in Colombo after he threatens to expose involvement of people in high places in corrupt activity. Ransom is demanded and distraught family members pay more than three crores of rupees to two Tamil political groups for the return of the man who is a diabetic. But the missing person who phoned last from Polonnaruwa district is yet to return despite the huge amount paid.
- The vice – chancellor of an Eastern university is threatened by an armed Tamil group and moves to Colombo. His resignation is not accepted by the UGC. The VC attends a top academic conference in a high – security area of Colombo. He is last seen around noon at the venue. Many appeals have been issued and representations have been made to the President himself but the man who went missing many weeks ago remains in the ranks of the “disappeared”.
- The Colombo district organizer of an Up Country Peoples party goes missing in Colombo. Within 48 hours of his disappearance the party concerned crosses over from the opposition to the Government. One MP becomes cabinet minister and another deputy – minister. But the “disappeared” organizer is still missing.
- A young Tamil woman working as financial executive of an airline firm is abducted by unknown persons from her residence in Borupane road, Ratmalana. Nothing is known of her whereabouts so far. In a separate incident another young Tamil woman working as an information tech executive in the private sector is also abducted. But she is fortunate in having UNP Colombo distict MP Thiyagarajah Maheswaran as her uncle. Maheswaran who enjoys close rapport with President Rajapakse pulls strings at a high level and the niece is released.
- Two prominent businessmen – brothers in law – in the jewellery trade return home in a car. The vehicle stops at a Police check point. Two men get in with arms and the vehicle speeds off. One of the businessmen a heart patient is dropped off soon. A ransom is demanded. Negotiations take place and a sum is paid. The missing man returns home. The family keeps “mum”.
- A well – known Tamil broadcaster is abducted on his way to work. He is taken blind- folded to an unknown destination and quizzed by people. The Indian High Commission exerts maximum pressure to get him released. The Indian envoy of that time speaks to President Rajapakse directly. The broadcaster is released with the stern warning that he should not open his mouth.
- A Christian evangelical pastor from Vavuniya district, his two sons and another are on their way to Colombo. They are last seen at the Negombo bus stand. They are reported missing and have been classified as “disappeared”.
- Another Colombo businessman and his employee go missing. His family is informed by his abductors that a hefty amount has to be paid. They are advised to sell off the business and pay up. Meanwhile some relatives have links to “Saffronist” politicians. Through these connections an appeal is made to a powerful personality in defence circles. The man and his employee are released from a camp in the Eastern province.
- A Tamil entrepreneur living in a Western Country goes to Colombo because a family member is terminally ill. His vehicle is stopped at the Negombo road junction by Tamil youths in a pick up. The relative driving him home from the airport is told to keep his mouth shut. Later a massive sum is demanded for his release. The telephone calls are made from Sri Lanka to the foreign country where the family lives.Negotiations are currently on to reduce the sum demanded.
- a woman teacher is abducted in Vavuniya. Her family is middle – class and does not have the ransom demanded for release. But her abductors are well aware of her close relatives abroad and what their financial status. The relatives are asked to pay up. After bargaining an agreed amount is paid and the woman freed.
The above – mentioned incidents are but a few in a long list of similiar ones plaguing the Tamil people of Sri Lanka in recent times. People suddenly disappear or go missing .There have been some incidents where Muslims and Sinhala people have gone “missing” too but the overwhelming cases of “Missing” or “Disappearances” pertain to the Tamil people alone. Though these incidents are loosely called “disappearances” they are really “involuntary disappearances” or “enforced disappearances”.
The “enforced disappearances” of most affluent Tamils are not political or related to counter – terrorist procedures. These are nothing but extortion related abductions. It is now an industry. The actual number of incidents are not reported to the Police or even organizations like the Civil Monitoring Commission. Many people negotiate on their own and get their loved ones released through paying a reduced sum. They later keep silent.
There is strong evidence that sections of the Police and armed forces are collaborating in these enforced disappearances. There is also evidence of people in positions of power providing tacit support to this racket.Against this backdrop the average Tamil victim does not trust the Police, armed forces or the Government. Those who have high level contacts use that influence to get their loved ones out. Others negotiate with the abductors, pay up and secure releases. After getting out most victims either leave the Country or simply keep quiet.
There are however many who remain missing still. There may be a variety of reasons for this. The families of such people are despondent. The only silver lining in that dark cloud is the Civil monitoring Commission convened by Mano Ganeshan the Western Peoples Front leader and Parliamentarian. The chairman is veteran leftist and former Presidential candidate Siritunga Jayasuriya. Politicians such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara, , Lakshman Kiriella,Suresh Premachandran etc are also involved in the commissions activities. The efforts of this body have failed to get any “missing” person released but the awareness created has helped to minimise abductions to some extent.
More importantly it provides an avenue for affected families to complain without fear.
On April 9th the Commission held a conference titled “Expression of grief by families and friends of the disappeared” at the Veeramylan hall in Kadiresan street, Colombo 11. In a welcome development Opposition and United National Party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe participated along with UNP Parliamentarians Lakshman Kiriella, Ravi Karunanayake and John Ameratunga.
It was an emotional atmosphere with family members holding pictures of the disappeared ones and raising cries. When Ranil got up to speak many relatives converged near the stage and requested him to get their loved ones released. They remained sobbing near the stage during his speech. It was like mass funeral without the “departed” loved ones. A visibly moved Wickremasinghe promised to do his best.
According to a newspaper report The Opposition Leader said while the Sri Lankan cricketers are bringing glory to the country the government is damaging its international reputation through extra judicial killings and disappearances. He also blamed the media for being silent on this matter. “I have to question the editors on this matter,” he said. He said the UNP had made an effort to safeguard human rights through an MOU signed with the SLFP, but now that opportunity too had been lost. “I wanted to safeguard human rights through the MOU while others in the party wanted ministerial posts,” he added
Wickremesinghe assured the loved ones of those who had disappeared in the recent past that he would do his utmost to find their loved ones. A large number of relatives of persons, whose loved ones had disappeared and were present at the meeting, became uncontrollable, as they gathered round Wickremesinghe calling on him to find their loved ones. “Please find my husband as I have become helpless with five children after he disappeared,” one woman was heard to say. A petition which called for an independent international human rights mechanism was handed over to him during the meeting.
The following resolution in the form of an appeal was passed at the end of the conference-
“We have gathered here at the initiative and call of Civil Monitoring Commission today to collectively mourn and express our grief at the sudden disappearance of our loved ones. We consider human lives as sacred and that no one, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, caste, social status etc., deserves to be “disappeared”.
We are shocked that this is happening again in our country after the dark past where thousands of young men and women simply “disappeared” never to be heard again. We join their family members and friends in solidarity and share their continued grief.
We are saddened that the present government, headed by a President who had been at the forefront of the struggle against disappearances many years ago along with the family members of the disappeared, has chosen to dismiss the disappearance of our loved ones as something that is not worthy of local and international attention. We are particularly pained at the inability or unwillingness of the government to adequately investigate this situation and their rejection of our efforts and those of local and international groups trying to help us.
Although the government makes out that they are taking steps to address this situation in the form of the Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission, Commission of Inquiry (CoI) and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) etc., none of these mechanisms have helped to bring back our loved ones and to know the fates of them. Setting up of these two commissions and group did not prevent disappearances even after have been set up.
As family members and friends,
We want to find our loved ones
We want to know what happened to them and those responsible to be held accountable
We want to make sure that there are effective mechanisms (not rhetorical) put in place to make sure that other families are also not subjected to the agony of having their loved ones “disappear”
So, we call on the government to:
1. Publicly acknowledge the disappearances of our loved ones and the continuing disappearances
2. Recognize that despite the best commitment, skills and experience of its members, the Commission of Inquiry and the IIGEP don’t have an adequate mandate and the capacity to help us find our loves ones, know what happened to them and prevent such things from continuing to happen
3. Make available to us and the general public the report of the Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission set up to inquire into disappearances
4. Extend invitation to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Madam Louise Arbour to visit Sri Lanka
5. Positively respond to the request of the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to urgently visit Sri Lanka and obtain their assistance to help us find our loved ones, know what happened to them and steps to be taken to prevent future disappearances
6. Set up an independent international monitoring mechanism in Sri Lanka that can investigate the disappearances of our loved ones in an independent manner and could work with the government, all relevant actors including Civil Monitoring Commission and all human rights defenders, to hold those accountable, prevent future disappearances and bring an end to the culture of impunity
7. Make “enforced disappearances” a crime in Sri Lanka
8. Ratify the UN Convention on the protection of all persons from enforced or involuntary disappearances.
It is indeed a welcome sign that a national leader like Wickremasinghe has expressed concern over thisdisappearances issue. The minority communities in the South voted overwhelmingly for Ranil at the Presidential elections. The Tamils in the North – East too would have done so had they been allowed to vote by the LTTE.
Wickremasinghe’s apathy and the problems he faced within the party led to a situation where he did not respond positively to burning issues of the day. Now he seems to be emerging as a strong leader and his display of concern for the plight of the disappeared is a positive sign.
Mahinda Rajapakse was once a human rights champion but today human rights are being violated on an unprecedented scale. The UNP regimes of which Ranil Wickremasinghe was part of did not have a good reputation for upholding human rights either.
It is time for Wickremasinghe to make amends for the past by mounting a human rights platform. If the Human rights champion of yester year can flout all such norms then there is nothing to prevent the opposition leader from campaigning sincerely and boldly for upholding human rights. The enforced disappearances crisis can be Ranil’s baptism of fire as a fighter for human rights.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org