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Justice for Tamil Families of the Disappeared

Sri Lanka has the second-highest number of enforced disappearances in the world. Over 100,000 people, mostly Tamils, have been disappeared by the state. Ten years after the end of the war, Tamil families are still searching for their loved ones.

Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka

A victim of enforced disappearance is distinct from a missing person. Enforced disappearance is the state-sanctioned taking of a person followed by a refusal to acknowledge the taking or disclose the fate or location of the disappeared person. This cruel injustice plagues the island of Sri Lanka, which leads as the country with the second-highest number of enforced disappearances in the world. Over 100,000 people, mostly Tamils, have been disappeared by the state.

During the final phase of the armed conflict in 2009, the Sri Lankan government particularly targeted LTTE cadres who surrendered, Tamil civilians who were hospitalized around the end of the war, and Tamils in camps for internally displaced persons. Tamil survivors, the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), and various human rights organizations have documented such instances of disappearances of Tamils. In the ten years since the end of the armed conflict, Tamil people who reluctantly provided their names to the army and were violently separated from their families remain disappeared.

"I'm waiting for my son," he pleads, clasping his hands together in prayer. "You can take me and bring back my son, I'm begging you. You don't need to do anything else for me. Bring back my son and take me instead.""I beg you." - Father, Kilinochchi

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Women-Led Protests

On February 20, 2017, women-led families of the disappeared began protesting by the roadside in Kilinochchi to demand answers regarding the fates and locations of their loved ones. Their mobilization sparked sister protests across the Tamil homeland beginning in mid-March of that year: first in Vavuniya, then Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Maruthankerny. During these protests, a sea of Ammas (mothers) and Ammamahs (grandmothers) clutched photos of their smiling loved ones, calling for answers. The families have continued protesting in varied forms for over 900 days under horrible weather conditions, including heat waves and monsoons, and have incurred an immense economic loss as well as physical and mental stress. They also place their personal safety at great risk in the face of overwhelming militarization and intimidation by police - protesters have experienced physical attacks as recently as this month. Yet, they persist. Their demands are simple:

  1. Release a list of surrendees from the final phase of the armed conflict;
  2. Release the yearly lists of detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) since 1978;
  3. Investigate and release the list of all past and present secret detention centres;
    Continuously consult families to keep them at the centre of any solution; and
    Commence all four transitional justice mechanisms in tandem, including a justice mechanism.

The Sri Lankan government has taken no meaningful action to address their demands. At least 53 family members have died in pursuit of the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

"I am dying bit by bit. Sometimes when I set off on the road, I wish that a vehicle would hit me. But she [pointing to the other lady next to her] says don't die, we will see them again… we will." - Mother, Kandavalai

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The Disappeared and the Departed

The Departed While Searching For Their Disappeared Loved Ones by K.Kumanan, collects the stories of protesting Tamil family members who have died without learning what happened to their disappeared loved ones. One story describes Arumugan Thuraisingam who died in February 2019, after struggling with prolonged illness and depression from worries about his disappeared daughter and grandchildren in 2009. Devastatingly, Thuraisingam's suffering and unanswered trauma is not unique across the Tamil homeland.

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The Office of Missing Persons and Continued Lack of Action

Following the election of Sirisena in Sri Lanka's 2015 presidential election, Tamils felt a renewed, albeit cautious sense of hope for the promised "good governance and reconciliation." It was under his newly elected government that Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 - but only after the OISL Report revealed horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity. To save face with the international community, the Sirisena government pledged to fulfill key commitments related to post-war accountability and transitional justice.

One such commitments was meaningfully addressing enforced disappearances through the establishment of a judicial mechanism that promises truth, justice, reparations and memorialization for the families of the disappeared. In May 2016, President Sirisena introduced the bill to establish the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) with the intention of investigating "missing persons" all over Sri Lanka. As of March 2018, 13,294 applications have been submitted to the OMP across the island.

Since the operationalization of the OMP in September 2017, it became quickly apparent there was no honest intention to serve the families of the disappeared. The name itself, "Office of Missing Persons," degrades the families by implying the persons in question went missing when, in fact, they were disappeared by the state. Furthermore, the OMP's findings cannot be used for criminal or civil liability purposes, ignoring the families' calls for justice. Many families have staged protests outside the OMP office and boycotted its proceedings.

"They told us Mahinda was only the one who did this and a better government is emerging and we should vote for them," she laments. "We believed them. We voted for them. And still have no answers." - Kandasamy Ponamma, Kilinochchi

The Man Behind the White Vans

Earlier this month, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's former Defence Minister who oversaw the final onslaught of the armed conflict, launched his presidential bid. Rajapaksa is an alleged war criminal who currently faces 12 lawsuits in the US over extrajudicial killing and torture. He is also largely responsible for the white van abductions that were used to systemically rape, kill, and disappear thousands of Tamils. His speech declaring his bid to a raucous Sinhala-Buddhist majority audience promised to stamp out terrorism and protect their children's safety.

Conversely, Tamil families of the disappeared share a deep fear that Rajapaksa's expected election will only further the genocidal efforts of successive Sri Lankan governments and remove their children from public memory. In an island where impunity for the most heinous atrocity crimes can springboard an alleged war criminal into power, Tamil voices are critically valuable. They should set off alarm bells for international action and investigation into genocide, immediately.

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Most of the parents have pictures of the loved ones, who went missing. But it has been years and for some decades since they went missing. The photos are getting old and troublesome to recognize. Photo: Sugi Thiru

Take Action

1000 Days of Protest

We urge you to take direct action by calling or writing to your government representative and demanding pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to release information about detainees (past and present) and about secret detention camps.⁣

Contact your local government representative and demand justice for Tamil families of the disappeared.

Find your Representative


Subject: Justice for Tamil Families of the Disappeared

I am writing/calling to demand justice for Tamil families of the disappeared, who have been protesting for 1000 days across the North-East of Sri Lanka. I am joining them in demanding answers about their loved ones, many of whom were in the custody of the Sri Lankan government. There are currently 60,000 to 100,000 unresolved cases of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka — most of which were perpetrated by the state against Tamils during the final phase of the armed conflict.

The international community must call upon the Sri Lankan government to answer the demands of these families, by releasing information about detainees (past and present) and about secret detention camps. Following the presidential election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who ordered the use of white vans to abduct and disappear Tamil civilians and cadres, Tamil families of the disappeared fear regression on the little progress made on their demands and personal risk to their safety. The international community must offer them protection and support their years-long struggle for truth and justice.


Sehr geehrte Frau XY/ Sehr geehrter Herr XY

Ich wohne im Kanton XY (Schweiz)/Wahlkreis XY (Deutschland) und schreibe Ihnen, um Gerechtigkeit für die tamilischen Familien der Verschwundenen zu fordern, die seit 1000 Tagen im Nordosten Sri Lankas protestieren. Ich schliesse mich ihnen an und fordere Antworten für ihre Angehörigen, von denen sich viele in Gewahrsam der sri-lankischen Regierung befanden. Derzeit gibt es in Sri Lanka 60.000 bis 100.000 ungelöste Fälle des Verschwindenlassens, von denen die meisten in der letzten Phase des bewaffneten Konflikts vom Staat gegen Tamilen verübt wurden.

Die internationale Gemeinschaft muss die sri-lankische Regierung auffordern, den Forderungen dieser Familien nachzukommen, indem sie Informationen über (vergangene und gegenwärtige) Inhaftierte und über geheime Inhaftierungslager herausgibt. Seit der Präsidentschaftswahl von Gotabaya Rajapaksa, der den Einsatz weisser Vans anordnete, um tamilische Zivilisten und Kader zu entführen und verschwinden zu lassen, fürchten die tamilischen Familien einerseits Rückschritte in Bezug auf die geringen erzielten Fortschritte bei ihren Forderungen, sowie die Gefahr für ihre eigene Sicherheit. Die internationale Gemeinschaft muss ihnen Schutz bieten und ihren jahrelangen Kampf für Wahrheit und Gerechtigkeit unterstützen.

Es würde uns viel bedeuten, wenn Sie sich konkret für die Rechte und Interessen der tamilischen Familien einsetzen würdenVielen Dank für Ihre Bemühungen.

Mit freundlichen Grüssen


Use the hashtags #TamilFoD1000 and #JusticeForGenocide once you’ve taken action so your voice can be added to our 1000 calls for action.⁣

47 Roots: Sri Lanka’s Disappeared

To learn more about enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and the brave, incredibly resilient families of the disappeared, please watch Sri Lanka’s Disappeared by 47 Roots.