Justice disappears for victims of the Sri Lankan civil war
Sharika Thiranagama, Stanford University
7 April 2020
In January 2020, the new President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared thousands who had disappeared during the civil war were ‘dead’ and that he couldn’t ‘bring them back’. This statement dismissed campaigns by families trying to locate their loved ones and demand accountability, as well as the work of the Office on Missing Persons, set up by the previous government to address disappearances. The state proposes issuing death certificates for up to 24,000 people.
It’s politically convenient for Rajapaksa to draw a line under these disappearances. He served as secretary of the Defence Ministry when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the nation’s president in the final war years. He holds command responsibility for war crimes and human rights violations committed by the state in the war and post-war years. The brutality committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state in the last few months of the war from February to May 2009, has been well documented. The UN estimates over 40,000 Tamil civilians may have died in these few short months.
I have written elsewhere about the LTTE. Here I focus on the state. One cluster of disappearances were former LTTE cadres and their families, many of whom surrendered to the army on the battlefield or at army check-points across the North Central Province. Some were killed at the point of surrender. Some surrendees who survived (though tortured nonetheless) had been issued a ‘number’ by the International Red Cross, who boarded convoys of surrendees. An official record of existing meant a better chance of surviving.
Many disappearances occurred in internment camps where the state held some 285,000 Tamils civilians who survived the battles for a further year after the war ended. In addition, Tamils disappeared in northern, eastern and in southern Colombo outside the battle zones before the final battles, as well as after the war’s end, ranging from those suspected of being LTTE to Tamil businessmen in Colombo abducted for ransom. Sinhalese dissidents were also abducted or killed.
Disappearances of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese rose under the Rajapaksas. ‘White vans’ associated with extrajudicial disappearances conducted by Sri Lankan security forces and attached paramilitary groups continued post-war. Family members of the disappeared have been arrested and face surveillance and harassment. Witnesses to disappearances in historic and contemporary cases have been threatened. At the presidential election in November 2019, Tamil mothers of the disappeared had marked 1000 days of continuous protest.
However, disappearances are an endemic feature of Sri Lankan political violence. The state crushed the 1971 left-wing Sinhalese insurrection led by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party, arresting, executing, and detaining many of those involved. The JVP rose up again in 1987. Combat between the JVP and the state caused an estimated 40–60,000 deaths or disappearances from 1987–1991.
Alongside disappearances in the south, the state honed and expanded its state security forces and incarceration practices in minority Tamil areas where disappearances became commonplace. Throughout the war years, Tamils were disappeared into auxiliary camps and detention grey zones never to be heard from again. The LTTE were also responsible for the killings and incarceration of dissident Tamils and Muslims across areas in their control and in their detention systems.
A Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances was appointed in 1994 and again in 2001 by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. However, the dates of investigation covered in both commissions limited the consideration of disappearances. Investigations stalled and resulted in few prosecutions. Since 2001, disappearances and features of violence identified in the previous commissions have only grown rather than shrunk.
Extrajudicial incarceration, torture and institutional impunity are institutionalized features of security enforcement and governance in Sri Lanka. First, there has been an increase in security forces, including the creation of counter-insurrectionary paramilitary forces such as the Special Task Force — the paramilitary wing of the police. Second, there has been an expansion of known and unknown networks and spaces of incarceration and torture, from the infamous fourth floor of the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters in central Colombo, where torture has occurred from the 1970s to a series of secret camps across Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s prisons have played only a small role in facilitating political violence since the late 1980s as extrajudicial methods — through which disappearances are conducted — have become institutionalized. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions such as regular elections, parliament and judiciary are interlaced with this extra-judicial world.
The Rajapaksa regime is the most explicit manifestation of this extra-judicial governance. They come from a long history of immunity from accountability. One example of this is General Shavendra Silva. The General was commander of the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan Army which shelled government designated ‘no-fire zones’ in 2009 and is responsible for hundreds of disappearances of Tamils that surrendered to his division. The previous administration, who had actually promised to investigate war crimes, promoted him to Army Chief in January 2019 amid widespread condemnation. Post-election, the United States imposed sanctions in February 2020 on the General and his family. In response, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa withdrew Sri Lanka from the 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution signed by the previous government that called for accountability in the Sri Lankan civil war. In short, Rajapaksas are determined to make accountability for disappearances both impossible and politically objectionable.
As long as the Rajapaksa family is in power, change will not happen. Without greater accountability and reform of the Sri Lankan security apparatus, Sri Lanka’s political future will involve more inhumane violence against its own citizens. Sri Lanka cannot say that the disappeared do not matter. The public must insist on the reality of these children, spouses, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. The disappeared, whether dead or not, themselves demand from us a reckoning.