The whereabouts of thousands of persons missing after arrest by the armed forces during the war remain unresolved. The government continues to give the stock answer that there are no persons in custody and, therefore, presumed to be dead and not among the living.
The mothers and relatives of the missing persons have been holding demonstrations and rallies for the last 4 years or more. The last one was held on 29 August, 2020 to mark International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. They are crying for justice.
They are not much concerned about those who got killed by bombing or shelling by the armed forces during the war. However, they are deeply concerned about the fate of those who were arrested by the armed forces during the course of security round-ups in the North and East and then went missing. More specifically those LTTE cadres who surrendered to the army on May 18th, 2009 at Vadduvaakal witnessed by their spouses, relatives and other eye witnesses but not seen thereafter. In fact, the surrender call was made by the army through the public address system during the closing stages of the war at Mullivaaikkal.
Hundreds of LTTE cadres surrendered to the 58th Division commanded by Savendra Silva at Vadduvaakal/Mullivaaikkal in two groups. The first was on the morning of May 18. 2009 carrying white flags as previously arranged. Among them were B. Nadesan, Head of Political Department, Seevaratnam Pulidevan, Head of Peace Secretariat and Col. Ramesh, Police Chief. Also, an unspecified number of LTTE cadres and civilians also surrendered to the army.
The surrender was facilitated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Lankan envoy to the UN in New York Palitha Kohona. They had full knowledge of the impending surrender of LTTE leaders and others. An intermediary, former MP Chandra Nehru, was in communication with Basil Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The following is an account of how the events unfolded prior to the surrender.
Communication (Sunday 17 May 2009 – All times Sri Lankan):
0846: Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona to Nadesan via a European intermediary: SMS: “Just walk across to the troops, slowly! And comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers.”
1529: Another SMS from Palitha Kohona: “white flag, hands up, walk slowly”.
Midday approx.: Nadesan calls Chandra Nehru MP in Colombo. “I will give you an answer around the evening, or anytime, my leader is instructing me, keep your phone free so I can call you”. [Shelling heard in background].
1830: Nadesan calls Nehru. “We are ready to surrender under the leadership instruction”. The rebel leader, Prabhakaran had given Nadesan and the LTTE permission to surrender. Nadesan tells Nehru to speak to Basil Rajapaksa to arrange, “full security and ceasefire when we come out.” Nadesan reports heavy shelling in their location with many casualties.
1900: Nehru calls Basil Rajapaksa. He tells him that Nadesan said there were 3000 LTTE cadres (including the political wing) and 22,000 civilians who wanted to surrender as soon as possible. Nehru tells him that the LTTE political wing and others want a ceasefire and security guarantees to surrender.
Basil Rajapaksa: “I am happy to hear this, it is anyway too late…I told you to tell them to surrender in those days but I will speak to the President and I will call you back.”
Nehru calls a number of embassies to tell them an agreement has been reached, including Norway, Britain, US. He calls Nadesan’s brother abroad.
1930 approx.: Nadesan calls Nehru. Nehru tells him that Basil informed him that the President has accepted their surrender conditions. The conversation is very difficult because of loud shelling. Nadesan says he will prepare everyone to surrender.
Nehru tries to call Basil back but his phone is switched off. He tries the President without success.
Nadesan calls Sunday Times journalist Maire Colvin in London (the call dispatched via South Africa). Nadesan says: “We are putting down our arms…We are looking for a guarantee of security from the Osama administration and the British government. Is there a guarantee of security?” Nadesan asks Marie Colvin to call UN Special Envoy, Vijay Nambiar who is travelling. The first time Nadesan tells Marie Colvin that it will be difficult to persuade the Sri Lankan government to accept a surrender.
Monday 18 May 2009
0130: Nadesan calls Nehru. He says the army is very close. In the background is shelling and small arms fire and screaming. Nadesan again confirms there are 3000 LTTE and 22,000 civilians who want to surrender.
Nadesan: “Why are they shelling?” He asks if the government has really agreed to the terms of the surrender. Nehru assures him they have. Pulidevan takes the phone and is shouting in panic, “Why haven’t you stopped the shelling; there are people dying and bleeding to death?”
Nehru: “Please don’t shout at me, I am not the one shelling you!”
Pulidevan: “You said they were going to stop the shelling. Are you sure they are going to accept the surrender?’
Pulidevan: “We will call you back.”
0145: Nadesan calls Nehru to see if there’s any news from the government which there is not. Nadesan says he is in direct contact with Washington.
0156: Basil phones Nehru: “We have arranged everything. How do we identify those surrendering?”
Nehru suggests a white flag.
Basil: “Ok. I will mention this to the President.”
Nehru: “Please arrange a ceasefire and they would like me to attend there when they surrender.”
Basil: “Ok we will see.”
0330: Pulidevan calls Tomas Stangland in Oslo to ask for help (at midnight Norwegian time). He also calls Tore Hattrem, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka. [Press reports that Pulidevan spoke to Erik Solheim that night is incorrect.] Nadesan calls his brother in London to say he’s surrendering; he says there are 1000 injured rebels stranded with him.
0409: Palitha Kohona is informed by SMS that Pulidevan and Nadesan want to surrender together with approximately 40 LTTE cadres.
0436: Nadesan calls Nehru who relays what Basil said to him at 0156 and instructs Nadesan to hoist a white flag. Nadesan asks if Nehru will be there when he surrenders and he says yes.
Pulidevan calls Tomas Stangland in Oslo again – late night Norway time.
0500: Nadesan calls Nehru back to say they are taking heavy casualties.
0511: Nadesan calls Nehru again hoping for news. Shelling and gunfire are still audible.
0528: Nehru calls the US Embassy who tell him the Americans are working on the surrender and are deeply concerned.
0530: Marie Colvin wakes up Vijay Nambiar. He tells Colvin that he’s received assurances from the Sri Lankan President that the surrendering Tigers will be safe and there’s therefore no need for him to go to oversee the surrender. She questions him on the wisdom of this decision.
0551: The UK Embassy’s second secretary calls Nehru who explains the situation. The diplomat says, “We have urged the government to accept the surrender and there is huge international attention on the conflict. It is vital that the civilians get out so we would encourage them to raise the white flag.”
0545: Marie Colvin calls Nehru. She agrees to call Nambiar again.
0556: SMS from Palitha Kohona to European intermediary: “Thanks.” in reply to 0409 SMS.
0602: Nadesan calls Nehru for news. There is none. He says the casualties are very heavy. Nehru gives Nadesan the telephone number of Basil Rajapaksa to call directly. They can speak to each other in English.
0609: Pulidevan calls his European intermediary to say he’s about to set off for the bridge. He keeps the line open for a couple of minutes and then the satellite connection cuts off. This was most probably his last call though he also reportedly spoke to his sister in law in Canada around this time.
0610: Nehru speaks to President Mahinda Rajapaksa who says he has consulted the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all the plans are in place for the surrender which the government is willing to accept. Nehru offers to go and supervise the surrender but the President says, “No our army is very generous and disciplined. There is no need for you to go to a war zone. You don’t need to put your life at risk”. Mahinda Rajapaksa tells Nadesan to call his brother Gotabaya on his direct number. Nehru is reluctant. The President says: “Ok, speak to Basil”. Mahinda is clear he has given the order to his brother Gotabaya to accept the surrender and protect their lives.
0620: Basil calls Nehru and says he has spoke to Nadesan and told him everything will be ok and his surrender will be accepted. “Waive a white flag and hold it very high” he tells him. Basil gives instructions on the route to take. He says the 3000 LTTE are to come separately from the civilians.
0620-30 approx.: Nehru calls Nadesan and hears gunfire in the background. He tells them to keep the line open but it drops off.
Nadesan: “We are ready. I’m going to walk out and hoist the white flag.”
Nehru: “Hoist it high, brother – they need to see it I will see you in the evening.”
0646: Kohona has been informed that Pulidevan and Nadesan are on their way to the bridge and replies by SMS: “That is very good news. Now let us rebuild the country and the shattered lives of all our people.”
0656-0700: Basil phones Nehru from his mobile phone. He tells Nehru to ask Nadesan why some LTTE are firing at the army. The implication is Nadesan and group are caught in crossfire. Basil orders Nehru to keep his mouth shut and not to talk to anyone about what has happened, especially internationals. Nehru gives Basil Nadesan’s satellite phone number and suggests he calls him directly.
0800: Johnston Fernando MP tells Nehru that Nadesan and the others are all dead. The source is a friend who is a commando in the security forces. Fernando calls his friend on speaker phone who says the LTTE leaders surrendered, accepted tea and were then beaten. Nadesan’s wife begged them in Sinhalese to stop shooting as they surrendered. However, they were all shot by the commandos. (http://white-flags.org/)
The UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Office Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report has documented in detail the sequence of events in which several senior leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who surrendered with white flags according to pre- arranged terms of surrender were summarily executed.
Photos and video clips showed their bodies lying on the ground with burnt marks and gunshot injuries. One video clipped showed a terrified Col. Ramesh interrogated by army personnel.
The second group surrendered on the evening of May 18, 2009 at Vadduvaakal to the same 58th army division. Surrenders included Elilan, Yogi, Rathnathurai, Balakumar and another 50 odd cadres. They were herded in CTB buses in the presence of their spouses, friends and the public and taken away by soldiers. They were told that the LTTE personnel were being taken for a short inquiry and will be released soon.
However, they were not seen again. A photograph of Balakumar and his son seated in a bench inside an army camp was published in the media. A soldier carrying a rifle was seen in the background. All these cadres were never seen again.
Rumour had it that all of them were summarily executed, some crushed using cement grinding machines.
There was also a third batch in which parents handed over their sons and daughters at Joseph Camp at Omanthai who disappeared thereafter.
The government shamefully continue to deny the extra-judicial killings of the surrenders despite overwhelming evidence of their surrender to the army. Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that those who surrendered were handed over to the Ministry of Rehabilitation. However, the government and the army have steadfastly refused to hand over the list of persons who surrendered at Vadduvaakal on May 18, 2009.
For days, tens of thousands of exhausted frightened survivors of the war had been pouring over the Vadduvaakal Bridge – a long narrow earthen walkway over the lagoon. The army controlled the bridge and detained all those who surrendered on the southern side. In the aftermath of the intense fighting there were still corpses lying around.
One survivor said, “I crossed the bridge at 0130 on 18 May. The Sri Lankan army put up beams of light in the sky to help us see. There were dead bodies on both sides of the road and in the middle and I saw a great number of bodies floating in the
President Gotabaya who was then the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence claims no LTTE cadres surrendered to the army. Since their bodies were not found they must be presumed dead. This is a lame excuse to hide a heinous war crime committed under the watch of Gotabaya, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Savendra Silva and other top army commanders. These are the people who are holding the secrets regarding the disappearances.
Yasmin Zooka on behalf of the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP) has released a list of 110 disappeared people seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan armed forces by eyewitnesses in May 18, 2009. A press release said “The ITJP wishes the family members and relatives of the surrenders to know that there are eyewitnesses to the surrender of their loved ones to the military on May 18, 2009.
The government of President Rajapaksa had backtracked on implementing UNHRC Res.30-1 of October 2015 on Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.
Clause 6 of the Resolution read as follows:
Welcomes the recognition by the Government of Sri Lanka that accountability is essential to uphold the rule of law and to build confidence in the people of all communities of Sri Lanka in the justice system, notes with appreciation the proposal of the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable; affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.
Clause 7 read as follows:
“Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to reform its domestic law to ensure that it can implement effectively its own commitments, the recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the recommendations of the report of the Office of the High Commissioner,1 including by allowing for, in a manner consistent with its international obligations, the trial and punishment of those most responsible for the full range of crimes under the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations relevant to violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, including during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
Despite denial by the Rajapaksas the ghosts of Mullivaaikkal will continue to haunt them till they depart to the other world!