20 April, 2024


A Missing Person In Sri Lanka: Heartfelt Issues & Ground Realities

By Michael Roberts

Dr Michael Roberts

When I was in Sri Lanka from mid-April to early June 2009 I was on holiday with my wife and not able to pursue investigations in any depth. In contrast my sojourn in May-June 2010 focused on a range of studies and travels. One gem of a life-story surfaced near my second home in Wellawatte when I was able to chat with a domestic servant at a Tamil house nearby, a lady who had been through the crucible of Eelam War in the Vanni Pocket. I shall call her Sambandhi. She was a wizened wiry soul who had survived the war together with husband, but (1) had one daughter killed by shrapnel; (2) one son (who was then aged c. 21) hospitalized in mid-2009 with the loss of one eye and injuries to face and other eye;[1] and (3) was wracked with pain because one of her sons had been conscripted by the LTTE and was missing. Khimera is the pseudonym I shall place on this son, a young man born in 1983 and aged circa 26 in 2009.

Neither Sambandhi nor the middle class Tamil household that had given her employment and other forms of support wished her name or photograph made public.[2] Sambandhi has since moved back to the Vavuniya locality, where two married daughters live nearby and where her husband works on odd jobs – with their circumstances benefiting from the lines of aid generated by their middle-class mentors. Her tales of family displacement and the travails they faced in April-May as she lost track of both her husband and injured son — rediscovering both in IDP camp and hospital respectively – were riveting stories. In graphic ways they revealed – reveal — the difficulties through which so many Tamil people, former citizens of Thāmilīlam (Roberts 2013), underwent between 1 January and 19 May 2009 and then subsequently as they endeavoured to recover normal life in IDP camp (Roberts 2012) and beyond.

Here then is the case of a missing Tiger soldier, Khimera. His mother Sambandhi and family remain distraught and gut-wrenched because they do not know his fate. There has been no closure, no religious rite they could engage in as final solace.

As a listener hearing the story in 2010 I could only comprehend a mere snitch of this lady’s suffering.[3] But Sambandhi also sought help: could I help locate her son or ascertain his fate? A dilemma this, for me: what could I say? Yes, I had the odd indirect government contact, but what could a government official do![4] I simply told Sambandhi that it was apahasui, difficult, and gently indicated, partly through body language, that her hopes were futile.

I knew that Sambandhi’s profound desire was akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. How did I reach this conclusion? Simple: I had studied war as a teenager and young adult while pouring over tales of World War Two. These reviews included vivid pictorial imagery acquired in looking over the pictures in the London Illustrated News at the school library at St Aloysius, Galle. My approach to social science issues is also grounded in empiricism and pragmatism nurtured through academic life as well as sporting contests in cricket, rugger and soccer.

To gain some measure of the issues involved one must take note of the Missing in Action (MIA) figures from previous wars. The scale of deaths and thus of MIA in the battlefields of World War One was enormous. Indeed, some bones and bodies are still occasionally discovered during building and other operations. Again, according to Wikipedia figures USA had a total of 405,399 personnel killed during World War Two, while 78,750 were additionally listed as missing. Thus the MIA amounted to a staggering 19 percent. However, in the Korean War the American MIA of 8,177 amounted to 15 percent of those counted as dead; while in Vietnam the percentage of MIA was less than 4 per cent.[5]

These figures indicate that one cannot refer to any generalized percentage of MIA in war and that each context has to be taken separately. The SL Army was no exception because it suffered heavy casualties, especially during Eelam Wars II and III. Thus the battalions making up the Gemunu Watch had 138 officers and 3031 killed over the 26 years of the conflict making a total of 3,169 dead; whilst an additional 405 (12 officers and 393 other ranks) still remain listed as MIA.[6] So, here, the percentage of MIA to dead was 12.7.

However, what matters is the fact of MIA: it is an inevitable outcome of war. Some cloistered drawing room voice in Sri Lanka may protest that we are mostly speaking here of Tamil civilians caught up in the war. Yes we are. But it should be only too evident to anyone but those imprisoned in the closet entitled “MYOPIA” that the Tamil peoples of Thāmilīlam were not only subject to multiple displacements from late 2008, but were eventually trapped in the hothouse of war and subject to battlefield conditions. So, there would be Missing Persons from both Tiger and civilian ranks (ranks which merged anyway because the LTTE conscripted heavily and many Tigers did not wear fatigues). In short, the conditions in the Vanni Pocket housing some 330-340,000 Tamils in January-May 2009 must perforce have generated Tamils Missing in the Furnace of War (TMFW) – some Tiger and many more civilian. Therefore Khimera, Sambandhi’s son, is just one statistic in the many within the cold gaze of a census board.

This, of course, is a heartless way of presenting the tale – indeed, down-to-earth literally and figuratively.

However, how did this situation arise in the first place? The situation in the Vanni Pocket was a LTTE creation full stop. When the LTTE enforced a west-to-east retreat on their civilian population – a willing move initially on the part of most Tamil citizens of Thāmilīlam (Roberts 2013) — the people were mostly not subject to artillery danger because their multiple displacements were ahead of battlefield shelling. But from December 2008 the relative security declined drastically as they were corralled within the decreasing space of the Vanni Pocket between the A9 road and the north-east coast.

Why then did the LTTE enforce such a policy? This was because their people (a) served as just so many sandbags and were “a protective asset”;[7] and (b) provided a pool of labourers and raw fighters for the Tiger cause; and (c) provided a picture of impending “humanitarian disaster” which would prompt international intervention. It is the third reason that I highlight here. This was the principal objective driving the LTTE high command’s tough policy.[8] The peoples of Thāmilīlam were, in fact, just a pawn in a gigantic act of international blackmail (one which failed).[9] This blackmailing act of holding their own people hostage was made possible by (1) the support of far-reaching Tamil migrant networks; (b) the sympathy and support of human rights (HR) and civil libertarian bodies in Colombo and abroad and (3) the support of some Western parliamentarians in the pocket of the LTTE for ideological or constituency reasons. There is a paradox here: several HR agencies that are beating the anti-Sri Lankan drum in the years 2009-13 have been in fact complicit, whether willingly or unwittingly, in the creation of the crucible we identify as the “Vanni Pocket” in early 2009. It was because the LTTE was fully alive to the international support which they had assembled that its leaders repeatedly rejected the government of Sri Lanka’s demand of an unconditional surrender.[10]

The end-product was a situation where some 330,000 or so citizens of Thāmilīlam were caught in the crucible of the Vanni Pocket between 1 January and 19 May 2009. A proportion of these people managed to escape their hostage situation: a few slipping away by boat, but most of the 57,412 persons[11] who got away by 31 March did so by crossing battle lines under severe danger of death from crossfire or from the killing work of Tiger personnel seeking to prevent such moves. Approximately 260-265,000 remained in the Vanni Pocket in April 2009 (IDAG computations: 2013), a figure that included a substantial body of Tiger personnel (among them the raw conscripts and those deployed as auxiliaries building bunds and ditches).

Note one unusual testimony recovered: during a visit to the northern reaches in November 2012 a Tamil friend introduced me over dinner to a young Tamil lad who had been conscripted by the LTTE in January 2009. He had deserted as soon as he could and with the aid of his family remained in hiding among the trapped peoples. Both he and his family had come out of the crucible alive.[12]

They were relatively lucky. They had suffered, but they were alive, unlike a sizeable segment of the 330-340,000 or so in the Vanni Pocket. We can underline their difficulties in point form:

  • Continuous movement initially till most assembled in congested make-do shelters in the Last Redoubt – known as the Second NFZ—by the end of February;
  • Some increase in the incidence of snake bite as they moved through jungle and scrub[13] especially at night;
  • Starvation diet and increasing malnutrition;
  • Increasing exposure to death by natural causes, especially among aged and infants, because of the shortage of drugs;
  • Increasing incidence of infectious diseases such as hepatitis, diarrhoea and dysentery;
  • Exposure to dehydration;
  • Severe danger of death from the mortar fire and occasional[14] artillery fire or air strike mounted by GSL forces;
  • Severe danger of death from the sporadic acts of LTTE shell fire at their own people in order to feed the picture of “impending humanitarian disaster;”
  • The act of a female suicide bomber who detonated herself at a check point[15] on the 9th February 2009 – killing 10 Tamil civilians and 19 SL army personnel, while wounding 64.
  • Gunfire by Tiger troops directed at those fleeing, especially in late April and May.
  • Death by drowning as some attempted to cross Nandhikadal Lagoon in late April and May (in surmise probably more died this way than by snake bite, probably amounting to three digits).

As these people fled (including in some instances Tiger personnel who were abandoning ship) some of them confronted agonizing decisions as frail kinsfolk could not keep pace or could not be carried. From the oral testimonies he gathered[16]  Rajasingham Narendran summed up the scenario[17]  thus:

“It was utter chaos. Many yet living were left for dead. There was no one to help them, unless the armed forces had stepped in…. many talked about stepping over dead bodies and having to leave the sick and injured loved ones behind to their fate. The latter was the most traumatic aspect of their experience. They had to choose between a sick father and a young child or a child and an injured husband. I am sure they are yet tormented by the choice they made, although the choice had to be made for one to survive.”

Given the confusion, one can only essay the most approximate guesstimates of the death toll. In criticism of the wild statistics that are bandied about, a recent study by a collective identified as Independent Diaspora Analysis Group (2013) suggests the following figures:[18]

A. At least 10,000 LTTE combatants and auxiliaries were killed in the period January-mid May 2009;

B. …. circa 15,000 truly civilian people were killed in the conflict zone during the last five months;

C. …. while perhaps an additional 2,000–3,000 civilians died whilst in flight, from being shot or shelled by one or other of the opposing forces or from drowning in the lagoon;

D. ….. and finally one should also allow for 3000-6,000 persons who escaped from the conflict zone or detention centres without being registered or after being enumerated.

The LTTE were normally meticulous in recording the details of their fallen and it is known from the SL Army’s tapping of their radio transmissions that 4264 named Tigers in the five-month period (IDAG 2013, fn. 174). It is probable that their record keeping fell into increasing disarray as the pressure increased and it is also likely that their register did not keep complete track of fatalities among those newly conscripted for building and logistical work in support of their operations.

Be that as it may, anyone with experience of the battlefield would affirm that there would have been a certain number of LTTE fighters who were MIA. One such fighter was Khimera.

Logically, in the conditions that prevailed in the Vanni Pocket in 2009 and especially in April-May, this stark fact would extend to the totality of the civilian population. Neighbouring people and/or relatives sometimes could bury those who had died (from whatever cause, including natural death or snake bite); but whether all such deaths were recorded then or have been recovered in subsequent testimonies and censuses remains doubtful.

Both on a priori grounds as well as evidence from testimonies we also know that quite a few corpses could not be buried, especially in the last few weeks. To this cluster one must add those who drowned and those who died unseen. The latter, these unburied corpses, would decompose or be consumed by jackals, monitor lizards, mongoose, rodents and termites. Ergo, they cannot be recovered or identified.

So, in sum, we have the probability that the considerable number of Tiger MIA was superseded by the number of Civilian Tamils Missing in the Furnace of War (CTMFW).

This picture, deliberately cold, clinical and heartless, highlights the insurmountable task of locating a substantial proportion of those missing. This does not mean that there are no special cases demanding focus[19] or that no efforts should be mounted in this direction.

The 2013 Campaign by the AFD

Indeed, the details presented by one “Watchdog” about the police intimidation and stonewalling that recently stalled an assembly of people and 12 buses gathered together at Vavuniya by the Association of the Families Searching for the Disappeared Relatives (hereafter AFD) on the days and nights of 5/6th March 2013 are an instance of ham-handed and ridiculous government action (Watchdog 2013). This activity was not confined to the police and intelligence agents in civvies; it extended to the non-cooperation from the Government Agent (a Sinhalese) and coincided with other police action that blocked thirty bus loads travelling from Kilinochchi and Anuradhapura to join a protest march in Colombo.

There is no doubt that this concerted effort by the AFD and its supporters, both Tamil and Sinhalese, was directed by those hostile to the government and timed to coincide with the international condemnation of GSL being mounted via the UNHCR sessions in Geneva (also see Kannangara 2013). Indeed, the AFD explicitly sees itself as a body seeking “the truth about their loved ones, and [desiring] to lobby the international community to intervene on their behalf by calling on the Sri Lankan Government to provide them with truth, justice and accountability” (Watchdog 2013).

These Tamil groups were on the move to join a rally at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo on the 6th March which involved “a few civil society activists, politicians and members of the clergy.” There seems to have been a parallel rally on the same day drawing together “about one thousand five hundred (1500) members of the Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front, a group comprising family members of disappeared Sri Lankan armed forces and of those forcibly recruited by the LTTE” (Watchdog 2013). Keeping a watching brief on this agitation was the Network for Human Rights (NfR) which promptly called on “the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to take up this issue of blocking the family members of the disappeared coming to the UN office in Sri Lanka expecting some kind of redress (Watchdog 2013).”

These linkages and alliances do not render the campaign undemocratic or unjustified. These people were – are – exercising a democratic right. They combined and set a trap for the government – knowing that some GSL agencies would act in the manner born. Sure enough several agencies stoked the smouldering fires of emotion and concern. Their severity of action demonstrated the authoritarian character of the state.

The individuals and agencies concerned with civil rights in Sri Lanka are ideologically and morally driven. They believe in civil rights. To dismiss them as mere agents of their paymasters is as foolish as unsustainable. To compound this mentality with action that stymies a body of grieving folk who wish to find those disappeared and missing is imbecilic, sheer political idiocy.

The LLRC did, after all, recognize the anxieties of those seeking missing kinfolk and ask

  • law enforcement authorities to take immediate steps to ensure that allegations of abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detention are properly investigated into, and perpetrators brought to justice.
  • … a Special Commissioner of Investigation [who would] investigate alleged disappearances and …. devise a centralized system of data collection at the national level, integrating all information with regard to missing persons.

Rather than clamping down on orchestrated protest campaigns, what is required is measured public information and the creation of a combined agency of governmental and civil rights personnel which would set about investigating specific cases, assembling data and educating grieving kinfolk about the practical difficulties confronting any honest search.

The government has not been inactive. A combined governmental/UNICEF programme searched for missing persons in 2009 and thereafter (UNICEF 2011); while the Ministry of Defence chipped in with its study of disappearances (2012a, 2012b). These may not be comprehensive, but represent a start. The problem is that liberal civil rights personnel in Sri Lanka (and thus elsewhere) seem to be unaware of these efforts – as Mirak Raheem (from the Centre for Policy Alternatives) revealed so starkly at an ICES seminar in Colombo in November 2012 till Reza Hossaini clarified one of these paths.

In brief, we have individuals who demand reconciliation, but remain adamantly uninformed. Thus we have a situation of ships passing each other in the night and the perpetuation of opposed positions. What is required now is a day-long seminar which sees such personnel as Ruki Fernando, Hossaini, Raheem, Narendran  and, say, Devanesan Nesiah as well as  a Tamil who resides in the north (say Singham from the NGO circuit) addressing this topic and tackling specific cases of missing persons as a kind of trial run.

My preliminary sketch of the circumstances beginning with the missing fighter Khimera is an initial step in this direction. Any such process must attend to the different category of cases we are surveying. My sketch has only surveyed (A) the case of those missing from the Vanni Pocket, whether Tamil Tiger soldiers or, as they were then, civilian citizens of Thamililam. But it would also appear that (B) there are Sinhalese (and Muslim?) kinfolk who are seeking the “truth” about their specific MIA. These instances will be mostly from Eelam Wars II and III. As such, they represent an extra-degree of difficulty/impossibility from the distance of time that renders them into icy-cold cases rather than just “cold cases” (nomenclature from detective investigations). It is possible they also encompass the killings and disappearances arising during the “bheeshana yugaya,” 1987-1990.[20] This would add another dimension of difficulty to any investigation of specifics.

Last, but not least, we have (C) the case of disappearances and kidnapping during the dirty war between 2006 and 2009, whether in the northern reaches, Vavuniya District or the southern regions – with a few sporadic instances in more recent years. Prima facie evidence suggests that state agencies or Tamil paramilitary arms or, just occasionally, LTTE hands may have been responsible for a good proportion of these activities (Fernando 2012; Watchdog 2012, 2013). It follows that the prospect of an impartial state investigation of such cases is slim[21] – any investigation is likely to be a story of pissing into the wind.

Compared to the numbers falling into Category A above, namely, those Tamils in Vanni Pocket who are missing, Category C adds up to a small number. However, this little cluster of instances punches above its weight of number: it is the most politically meaningful field of inquiry[22] because of the sinister potential permeating these instances (mostly Tamil victims, but including a few Sinhalese). Quite usefully Dushy Kanagasabapathypillai’s recent tale (2013) of grieving relatives presents us with several such instances.

Thus, Thevakala Indrapalan from Vavuniya tells the world that “[her] husband went missing when he was on his way to the paddy field in Vavuniya. Four youths wanted to see the paddy filed as it was a holiday. My husband took these four young men to the paddy field in 2007, and nobody has returned. I have searched for my husband everywhere, and I have not yet found him anywhere.

Again, Uthayachandra Manuel from Mannar claims that her “son was abducted by armed men who came to our house on 11th of September 2008. I have visited all the detention centres in the country, and I have not been able to find him yet.

These two instances, I am reliably informed from an LLRC informant, are of a type related to the LLRC by several testimonies. Readers would have been better served by fuller details on both these cases elicited via probing questions, but these instances in 2007 and 2008 seem to fall within the ‘portfolio’ embracing probable extrajudicial killings and kidnappings during the dirty war straddling the years 2006-08.

One of Kanagasabapathypillai’s examples, however, falls into Category A, viz., those missing from the Vanni Pocket. Vasanthathevi Kathirkamanathan from Ananthapuram, Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaithivu District tells us that both her daughter and her husband are missing. The latter, we are told, was with her till 18th May..… but no details are provided as to when precisely, and where/how, the two parted company (Kanagasabapathypillai 2013).

Such then are the testimonies and tales that have to be investigated if we adhere to the suggestion of the LLRC. Within the present political context the most acceptable agency for such a Missing Persons Unit (MPU) would be two Tamil-speaking personnel with suitable skills drawn from civil society institutions under the chairmanship of a government appointee who also possesses Tamil skills.

Taking Uthayachandra Manuel’s complaint from September 2008 in Mannar how would such a Committee and its assistants proceed? They would have to (a) visit Mannar and talk to her kinfolk as well as neighbours; and (b) use government sources as well as ethnographic methods to ascertain which policemen and what military/naval units were based in the locality at that point of time in September 2008. Indeed the most basic starting point would be for UM to indicate the probable ethnic identity of the men who seized her husband.

Whether the Rajapaksa Regime will ever entertain this type of investigation remains doubtful; but it is precisely the type of course that will promote reconciliation. Equally advisable is another body of personnel to address Category A cases. Here the task may be less ethnographic investigative – for the simple reason that the field of action has been obliterated and few witnesses to specific cases of “missing Z” or “missing Y”  will be on any horizon. As with my encounter with Sambandhi and her earnest search for Khimera, any MPU will face a will of the wisp sky. The ground reality with MIA is that concrete evidence is extremely rare, definitive clues are non-existent — hence my resort to a formless grey sky as my metaphor.

This is the strength behind the politics of some people pressing the case of those missing from the last conflict zone: they are pushing for finds that are beyond earthly reach. They are surely alive to the chimera of a goal they are advocating. They are onto a sure thing, a field that can produce no results or hardly any.

But there are people of compassion who also have discerning minds that are not overwhelmed by the instrumentalities of political advantage. Compassion is what induced them to take up the cause of the MIA from the last conflict zone, tales of the type Sambandhi or Vasanthathevi. It will be the task of a MPU to pursue specific claims in ways that bring home to these discerning compassionate Sri Lankans that finding how and when Khimera or X or Y passed away during the chaos of high intensity warfare that involved the death of 30-60 Tiger fighters every single day[23] is an impossible project. In short, the task of a Missing Persons Unit will be as much educative as investigative. This is the intelligent road for the government to take – not the rough tough intimidations that its personnel pursued recently in Vavuniya. That was mindless, adding another self-inflicted wound to the many acts of self-punishment generated by the present government in recent years.


De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2009 “Sri Lanka’s Experience in Counter-Insurgency Warfare,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Oct. 2009, Vol. 35/8, pp. 40-46.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2010 “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010, 30/4: 35-37. http://www.asiapacificdefencereporter.com/articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

Fernando, Ruki 2012 “Sri Lanka: When one goes missing every five days,” http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/2012-01-30-09-31-17/human-rights/212-sri-lanka-when-one-…

ICRC 2009a “ICRC Information [on Evacuees from Conflict Zone, 2009]” http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/interview/sri-lanka-interview-200509.htm

IDAG 2013 “Numbers Game. The Politics of Retributive Justice,” in South Asia Terrorism Portal, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf.

Jeyaraj, DBS 2012 “Theepan of the LTTE – Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/5381.

Kanagasabathypillai, Dushi 2013 “Sons and Daughters missing, missed, forgotten: LLRC’s Failure in Sri Lanka,” Groundviews, March 2013, http://groundviews.org/2013/03/17/sons-and-daughters-missing-missed-forgotten-llrcs-failure-in-sri-lanka/

Kannangara, Nirmala 2013 “Families of the Disappeared to complain to UNHRC,” Sunday Leader, 15 March 2013.

Ministry of Defence 2012a “A Factual analysis of Disappearances and Abductions,” http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=factual_analysis_of_disappearances_and_abductions_20120720_05, last modified 26/7/2012

Ministry of Defence 2012b “Analysis of the Disappearances reported by “Groundviews” from October 2011 to March 2012 (updated version)” June 2012, 16 pp.

Roberts, Michael 2011 “The Tamil Death Toll in Early 2009: A Misleading Count by Rohan Gunaratna,” 23 November 2011, http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/6285.

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Humanitarian work in midst of propaganda war: IDP camps of 2009-2012,” Seminar at ICES, Colombo, 8 November 2012.

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Towards Citizenship in Thāmilīlam: The Tamil People of the North, 1983-2010,” South Asia Research 33: 57-75.

UN Economic & Social Council 1999 “Civil and Political rights, including Questions of Disappearances and Summary Executions,” 21 December 1999.

UNICEF 2011 “Overview of ongoing government efforts to trace and unify missing children in Northern Sri Lanka,” July 2011.

Watchdog 2012 “A disappearance every five days in post-war Sri Lanka,” 30 August 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/08/30/a-disappearance-every-five-days-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

Watchdog 2013 “Police detains families of disappeared from Northern Sri Lanka and prevents peaceful protest and petition to the UN,” Groundviews, 7 March 2013, http://groundviews.org/2013/03/17/sons-and-daughters-missing-missed-forgotten-llrcs-failure-in-sri-lanka/

Wijesinha, Rajiva 2013a “Sri Lanka Rights Watch 84 – Structures to deal with disappearances,” http://www.peaceinsrilanka.lk/press-releases-details/press-releases-details/3061

Wijesinha, Rajiva 2013b “Sri Lanka Rights Watch 96 – Answering allegations intelligently,” 20 March 2013, http://rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/sri-lanka-rights-watch-96-answering-allegations-intelligently/#more-6028

 OTHER DOCUMENTS [not necessarily consulted]

Dept of Census & Statistics, Min. of Finance & Planning 2011 Enumeration of Vital Events.

Gunatilleke, Gehan & Nishan de Mel 2012 “Sri Lanka: LLRC Implementation Monitor,” November 2012.
ICRC 2009a “ICRC Information [on Evacuees from Conflict Zone, 2009]” http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/interview/sri-lanka-interview-200509.htm

ICRC 2009b “Sri Lanka: ICRC assists thousands of persons in government-run sites for the displaced,” http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/update/sri-lanka-update-090609.htm

LLRC n. d. “A List of Commissions of Inquiry and Committees Appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka (2006 – 2012).”

UN Economic & Social Council 1999 “Civil and Political Rights, including Questions of Disappearances and Summary Executions,” 21 December 1999.

[1] This young man has now got a job in the Vavuniya area.


[2] I have, perforce, to respect this desire though I do wonder if it is overdone –since some others have come forward (Kanagasabathypillai 2013). That Sambandhi and her middle class mentors fear harassment, nevertheless, highlights the degree to which the GSL is seen as a powerful and hostile force by so many Tamils. This psychosis extends to non-Tamils as well – the odd pal and some kin folk sometimes worried about my safety when I travelled north and east.

[3] Just recently Sambandhi and family were approached and asked to participate in the rally by the agencies  mounting the campaign against GSL in reference to missing persons (see Watchdog 2013), but chose to keep out of the public eye because they felt it would bring harassment into their life world.

[4] For some of the paths pursued see UNICEF 2011 and Wijesinha 2013a and b.

[5] These figures are from Wikipedia (though this source can be erroneous in some arenas; however, the citations used suggest that the statistics here are valid.

[6] Email from Retd Major-General  Lalin Fernando, former officer in Gemunu Watch (23 March2013).

[7] This telling phrase was used by Jacques de Maio, Head of the ICRC Operations in South Asia, in Cable 09COLOMBO86, http://www.cablegateserch.net/cable.php?id=09GENEVA584.

[8] Thus in a perceptive blog comment in Groundivews, Rajasingham Narendran has pointed out that  in 2008/09 these people were retained as a protective shield during the LTTE’s retreat and “exposed to death” by the LTTE in an act that was “a major part of its war and political strategy” – see comment, dated, 23 September 2012, in Groundviews debate on satellite imagery (http://groundviews.org/2012/09/12/the-end-of-war-in-sri-lanka-captured-for-posterity-by-google-earth/). It was in this view “an unpardonable crime against humanity, morality and dharma.”

[9] This argument has been spelt out in Roberts, “Blackmail,” 2012a. Today I would give the greatest weight to this goal –dominating the advantages of shield and labour-pool that the people also served.

[10] The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) demanded an unconditional surrender on four separate occasions, namely, October 11, 2008, January 2, February 3 and April 5, 2009.

[11] UNOCHA figures, 09Colombo 374.

[12] This young man spoke no English and our chat was through translations. Even in Tamil he seemed monosyllabic. He was now gainfully employed but did not want identification because of his short stint in LTTE ranks. As an aside I note that no members of his family had died during the ordeal. So, too, with three vocal Tamil activists in Kili and Jaffna towns whom I interviewed –individuals who had remained in the conflict zone with their families till mid-May.

[13] The dry zone in Sri Lanka covering the Northern Vanni , Nuvarakalawiya, Tamankaduwa and the Eastern Province down to Hambantota District is notorious for its regular incidence of snake bite fatalities from snakes. The conditions of the exodus which forced the Tamil people to move hurriedly in large numbers through scrub terrain at all hours would have increased the danger. In fact, the aged Tamil politician, Anandasangaree, pinpointed this cause of death in one public statement (de Silva Ranasinghe 2010: 37). Subsequently, reports from Ruki Fernando (in GV) and Tamils (e.g. Nicoleen Swaminathar during chat, June 2010) noted that the IDPs returning to their villages were also being smitten by vipers and other snakes.

[14] See IDAG illustrations and documentation.

[15] See http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20090209_06 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k16l3v1lC1Q&oref=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.slnewsonline.net%2Fchronology_of_suicide_bomb_attacks_by_Tamil_Tigers_in_sri_Lanka.htm&has_verified=1.

[16] Rajasingham Narendran met several IDPs in the refugee camps in April in association with a Tamil migrant group and then again visited IDPs at Mänik Farm and elsewhere in June July 2009.

[17] R. Narendran to Roberts, email, Nov 22 Nov, 2011, commenting on the first draft of my article “The Tamil death toll in early 2009: challenging Rohan Gunaratna’” (2011).

[18] After studying this in its draft form I conclude that it betters the estimates provided by Narendran, Nadesan and Sarvananthan in the review which I presented in late 2011 (Roberts 2011).

[19] These would include LTTE cadres whose arrest or surrender has been testified to by reliable witnesses (see Watchdog 2012 and 2013; Fernando 2012).

[20] The reference here is to the dirty war against the JVP Mach II in response to the JVP’s own programme of terror killings of pro-government or “class’ enemies. The Govt of the time and the security forces deployed death squads. There are no reliable figures for the numbers killed, but the totals range from 30,000 to 50,000.

[21] But note Ministry of Defence 2012 and cf Watchdog 2012).

[22] For instance the abductions of Lalith Weeraraj and Muruganandan Kugan in the Jaffna Peninsula (Watchdog 2012).

[23] General Sarath Fonseka made this claim in an interview in late 2009 (de Silva-Ranasinghe 2009: 7). Our guestimate of roughly 10,000 LTTE soldiers and auxiliaries killed in the five months of 2009 would boil down to 72 per day (10,000 divided by 139 days). Note that in the ambush of Aanandapuram on 4th 2009 April which decimated seasoned LTTE troops assembling for a counter-attack roughly 600 were killed in the space of two days (Jeyaraj 2012 and de Silva-Ranasinghe 2009:7).

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  • 0

    “One gem of a life-story” – u write

    One GEM!

    This is the life TRAGEDY of someone!

    Not having been on holiday for many many years, & having lived, for the most part of 37 years with the violence & tragedy & waste & conflict, & corruption, that has filled life here from day to day, tho desperately wanting to escape it

    I came to an abrupt halt with that phrase… GEM!

    You were on holiday,
    maybe you have been able to have regular holidays for much of your life… I dont know how your article developed… but those 5 little words remind me, as I have often been reminded, that countries like ours are rich resources for intellectual & well as other pickings. Scholars from abroad, can come & go, & find a gem mines all over the place. They can exacavate them themselves, or return to calmer places & hire local field workers to do the spadework.
    I absol am NOT belittling or scorning the work of any scholar located anywhere, but, maybe (I am no scholar myself but have watched for years others attempting to cope with the chaos of life here, the poor academic resources, etc etc, & thinking how much easier
    if such people either emigrated
    or Tied themselves to a better off western country,
    downgraded the abilities of struggling students here,
    & upgraded any foreign student who turns up)

    Michael, dont get em wrong…this is NOt a criticism of your work, only an expression of shock at seeing what the lives here

    thru the eyes of a foreign based scholar!

    the gems are being newly laid in the ground day by day for future scholars to find…

    The tragedies are legion…. I am reeling from them…one doesnt have to be a direct victim ones self…& one can never take a holiday from them


    • 0

      It has become a habit of belittling the serious issues raised independently by the constrained minds. Critical reviews and finding ways to deal with them must help progress the country.

      The post war trauma of the civilians have not been dealt properly. Whereas adequate state resources have been placed to help the army wounded and the families.

      The government must open the door on the accountability issues. It will be four years and it has not released the names of those taken into custody and their whereabouts.

      Even to date, the government has not revealed all the names of the soldiers killed in action. They have been clobbered under persons missing action to possibly limits its contribution to help the families.

      Rajasingham Jayadevan

  • 0

    Oh dear – that was error-full – HORRORful!

    Please allow this rewrite:

    “One gem of a life-story” – u write
    One GEM!

    This is the life TRAGEDY of someone!

    Not having been on holiday for many many years, & having lived, for the most part of 37 years with the violence & tragedy & waste & conflict, & corruption, that has filled life here from day to day, tho desperately wanting to escape it

    I came to an abrupt halt with that phrase… GEM!
    You were on holiday,
    maybe you have been able to have regular holidays for much of your life…

    I dont know how your article developed…
    but those 5 little words remind me, once again, that countries like ours are rich resources for intellectual & other pickings. Tourists, researchers, scholars, can come & go, & find a gem mines all over the place. They can exacavate them themselves, or return to calmer places & hire local field workers to do the spadework.

    I absol am NOT belittling or scorning the work of any scholar located anywhere Much of whose work is marvelous & vital). But (no scholar myself) living here for years & watching many people attempting to cope with the chaos of life here, the poor academic resources, etc etc, I have often thought how much easier it wd be for such people to emigrate
    or link themselves firmly to a better off western country,
    downgrade the abilities of struggling students here,
    & upgraded any foreign student turning up.

    Michael, dont get me wrong…this is NOT a criticism of your work (I am the last person to be able or to WISH to do any such thing), but only an expression of shock at seeing the lives of people here thru the eyes of a foreign based scholar!

    These gems are being newly laid in the ground day by day for future scholars to find…

    The tragedies are legion…. I am reeling from them…one doesnt have to be a direct victim ones self…& one can never take a holiday from them. I wish I could get far away from here into some kind of sanity–I have a thousand stones to fashion gems from, on paper.


  • 0

    This tale, and many others of the war, have been told many times.
    What is needed is to look to the future.
    The LLRC Report should be implemented.
    Militarisation,especially of the north and east,should be reduced and phased out.
    The nothern PC does no exist,according to the Elections Commissioner, as the president has not ‘gazetted’ it.
    But an election is planned.
    Is this a joke or deliberate obstruction.
    At recent UNHRC meeting,sri lanka said that FIVE more years are necessary to implement human rights.
    This is unbeleivable.

  • 0

    Hidden amongst the numbers and statistics are the tears, blood and hopes of a people stumbling from place to place or falling by the wayside. Those who survive brave the odds of being gunned down or bombed to pieces. The unltimate survivors imprisoned in camps to be screened and counted. Out of this morass emerges the tattered remnants of the Tamil nation, broken homes and families mourning the dead or seekig the missing. May you recover and gain solace from the ordeal you have faced.

  • 0

    Michael Roberts has highlighted the difficulties of identifying the MIA Tamils of the last war, with his example of ‘Khimera’ and the emotional turmoil of their relatives, with that of his mother ‘Sambhanthi’ . The Human Rights Watch, a few years back highlighted the story of a Sinhala mother whose son in the army was an MIA after the Elephant Pass battle in which the LTTE overran the area. While looking for her MIA son, her concerns were also about other mothers, including Tamils, who were in a similar plight. What is saddening is the difficulties in providing answers to the lingering hopes and assuaging the lingering fears of the relatives. However difficult this task is, the effort to find what happened to these MIAs should be on-going and theoretically ever end. It should be a continuing human endeavour transcending the communal divide, during at least the life time of those of us living now.

    There are reasons to suspect that MIAs who are indeed dead, have not been declared dead, as in the aftermath of the armed forces debacle at Elephant Pass during Eelam war 3. Similarly, as Michael Roberts has pointed out the LTTE did not keep records of their cadres who died towards the tail end of the last war. There are also reasons to believe that many cadres, civilian helpers and civilians may have left the war zone by boats to India and thereafter dispersed to other countries. Some of these individuals may have not declared themselves to be yet alive to their relatives, for reasons not hard to guess. For every boat that was stopped ( like those with Soosai’s family),a few may have slipped through. There are also many who escaped from the IDP camps, using bribery as a tool. Many of these individuals were taken to the Katunayake airport and seen through by those whose services were purchased. These individuals may be also among those considered missing. Further, many may have died unidentified and unknown. They may have been left to rot wherever they fell or pushed into the ubiquitous bunkers. This number may be considerable on the basis of what I have heard of the circumstances. Painstaking investigations and DNA studies on bone fragments can also provide answers in this instance. However, can we afford this? If we cannot afford to do this, we are not worthy of our status as humans.
    Michael Roberts has also been bold to name the civilians in the LTTE controlled Vanni as citizens of Tamil Eelam. I have alluded to this in my articles, interviews and comments, thought it did not occurred to me to specifically name them so. Those of us travelling through the Vanni had to undergo immigration and customs screening at southern and northern ends and were treated as foreigners. in fact the Sinhalese passing through Eelam customs, were treated leniently than the Tamils. However, I would underline the fact that they should be rather categorised as the de-facto citizens of the de-facto ( not de-jure) state of Tamil Eelam controlled by the LTTE.

    This reality, makes the nature of the war, rather complicated to clearly define. The Tamils in the Vanni, were de-jure citizens of Sri Lanka, but de- facto citizens of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE ruled them, whereas the Government of SrI Lanka paid for the administrative services, schools and health services. The government was also responsible for ensuring food and medical supplies. The LTTE maintained law and order and operated the judicial system. Its writ was exercised over the services the government provided. The government in fact was in the service of the LTTE !

    These factors complicate issues currently being raised pertaining to the war and its consequences quite a bit. Who were the enemies and who were the allies? Who was responsible for what? Who has to answer for what? Was the GOSL , the de-jure government,a foe and benefactor of the Tamils, simultaneously? Was the LTTE , the de-facto government, the liberator, defender, protector , oppressor and also the enemy of the Tamils, simultaneously? These are complicated questions that have to be recognised and answered. Without clear objective answers, it will be difficult to discover the truth with regards to the last war and its consequences.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 0

    If Michael Roberts in such a short space of time. could provide us with such a wealth of information, why is it so difficult for the Government to find more unbiased people like him to research the LLRC report and act upon its recommendations? This is all the UNHRC is asking for, and the Government is acting like it is guilty of all the crimes that the Diaspora is accusing it of, and also creating Ethnic/Religious red herrings to make the majority voting public stay on their side! Whom are they fooling?

    • 0

      Polpot is telling the Polpot to behave good.

      Why anonymity and a degrading pseudonym name to give a good piece of advice.

      It is the modern day Sri Lankan psyche to live in anonymity.

      • 0

        RJ, Have you not heard about White vans that carry away dissenting Sinhala Buddhists?

  • 0

    It’s a shame people many people have failed to read and grasp the thrust of Dr. Michael Robert’s article…

    What Dr. Roberts has introduced into the debate, and shared with the Colombo_Telegraph forum contributors, is the existences of an in-depth empirical study that has blown open the lid, ‘literally’, on the ”tens of thousands killed” claim..

    The IDAG study he has alluded to is also referenced in the following piece in OUTLOOK India:

    …..Much of the ‘data’ on which the international ‘human rights’ campaign against Sri Lanka is based, moreover, is deeply suspect. After the end of war, different international bodies and individuals gave varying estimates of the number of civilian fatalities. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), on December 13, 2009, gave an estimate of 20,000 to 40,000; Frances Harrison of the BBC, in July, 2012, put the figure at an incredible 147,000; and the UN Internal Review Panel, on November 10, 2012, published an estimate of 70,000 civilians killed, jacking up the UN’s earlier ‘credible estimates’ of 40,000 with little new evidence. These divergent estimates have been credibly challenged by an authoritative study based on a wide range of parameters, including witness testimonies, satellite and associated imagery, contemporary reports on the conflict in diplomatic dispatches revealed by Wikileaks, media reports and reports of various HR organizations operating in the field during the conflict, and a range of other documentary sources…..


    I suggest people read that!!!..

    • 0

      That was written by congress paid coolies…

      • 0

        I see that intelligent responses of the articulative / reasoned kind are a thing of the past..

        The real debate that surrounds the “last redoubt” has unfortunately been overwhelmed by emotionally misguided drones..

        I guess for the more “aware”, this debate is to be had in other portals..


  • 0


    I agree . The space provided by CT for intelligent arguments, debate and discussion, is being increasingly invaded by swarms of drones, as you chosen to describe them. It is probably a inevitable problem that has to be lived with. All opinions have to accommodated, while most have to ignored. It is a buffet from which we have o select the fare. All popular websites that permit comments are beset by this problem.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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