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.
Photos taken by Sugi Thiru in Vavuniya from March 2017 and March 2019.
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
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:
- Release a list of surrendees from the final phase of the armed conflict;
- Release the yearly lists of detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) since 1978;
- 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.
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.
“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
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. PEARL’s petition calling on members of the international community to recognize the Tamil genocide and to establish alternative paths to justice is still accepting signatures. Please sign and share widely.
Today, on the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Tamil families of the disappeared are calling for a massive protest.
We stand in deep solidarity and continue to echo their calls for answers and accountability.
May they soon find the answers to their heartbreaking questions.
“In my dreams, I see my son.” — Mother, Location Unknown
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.
People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) is 501(c)3 non-profit organization advocating for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
People for Equality and Relief in Lanka
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