By A Special Correspondent –
January 29 and 30 (Wednesday and Thursday) mark eight years since the abduction and execution of seven humanitarian staff of the Tamil’s Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO). The abductions occurred in two separate incidents.
The seven TRO staff were travelling from Batticaloa to the TRO Headquarters in Kilinochchi for training on 29 and 30 January, 2006 when they were forced to stopped, in full view of a Sri Lanka Army checkpoint at Welikande on the Batticaloa – Polonnaruwa border, by a ‘white van’ without license plates. The TRO van travelling on the 29th contained five persons and the van on the 30th had 15. The other 13 staff members were released. The seven have never been heard from again and media reports state that they were raped, tortured, and executed. They were:
Abducted on 29 January 2006:
Mr. KASINATHAR GANESHALINGAM (53 years old)
Mr. THANGARASA KATHIRKAMAR (43 years old)
Abducted on 29 January 2006:
Ms THANUSHKODI PREMINI (25 years old)
Mr. ARULTHAVARASA SATHEESKARAN (23 years old)
Mr. SHANMUGANATHAN SUJENDRAN (24 years old)
Mr. THAMIRAJA VASANTHARAJAN (24 years old)
Mr. KAILASAPILLAI RAVINTHIRAN (26 years old)
All of the TRO staff were humanitarian workers: Mr. Ganeshalingam was a member of the TRO Board of Directors, Coordinator of Pre School Education Development Centre (PSEDC) and was married with two young children; Ms. Premini was the Chief Accountant of the TRO Batticaloa Office and a student at Eastern University; Mr. Thangarasa, the driver of the van on the 29th, was the father of 5; the other four young men were accountants or trainee accountants at TRO Children’s Homes (orphanages) who were going to Kilinochchi for in-service training. (For extended profiles and photographs of the TRO staff please click here )
What happened to the TRO 7?
In an article published over a year after the abductions, Canadian based blogger D.B.S. Jeyaraj reported the following:
“The fate of Premini was terrible. The dusky woman with attractive features and a slight squint was taken to another camp and raped first by Sinthujan himself. Thereafter it was a horrible gang rape with TMVP cadres taking turns to sexually assault her. Fourteen cadres raped the poor girl… Premini was heard to shout and cry at the start. Later she merely sobbed and whimpered. Premini was taken out before dawn by TMVP cadres to the jungles. She walked like a ‘nadaipinam’ (walking corpse) without crying or showing signs of emotion, said one ex-TMVP cadre. She was apparently hacked to death and thrown into the bushes.”
“The four males were then given rice to eat and tea to drink. Afterwards they were blindfolded and put in a pick-up. It was driven into the interior. The men were then forced to walk into the jungle blind-folded. The blindfolds were removed and they were asked to dig a huge pit. When it was over the weeping men were lined up and shot.”
He also names those responsible for the abductions of the TRO humanitarian workers:
“The Karuna faction has a man called ‘Pillaiyan’ who is described as the supreme military commander of the TMVP military wing… He is said to be the main ‘link’ between the TMVP and its (GoSL) military intelligence handlers.”
The abductions occurred soon after the current administration of President Rajapakse had first taken power (December 2005) and was to meet with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Geneva for ‘peace talks’ in February 2006. At the time the GoSL and others categorically stated that the abductions were a hoax staged by the LTTE so that they could bow out of the Geneva talks. Among those who claimed that the abductions never took place most were government stooges, and their media outlets, but of particular concern was the reporting of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR-J) and D.B.S. Jeyaraj on April 2nd and 5th respectively.
Jeyaraj reported that, “UTHR (J) in the special report No. 20 released on April 2nd… “But now UTHR(J) can confirm that the TRO abduction drama was staged by the LTTE immediately before the Geneva meeting to force the paramilitary issue to the forefront of the talks.”
Jeyaraj later printed a correction but the UTHR-J have never corrected their error. It seems that UHTR-J have ceased functioning. Their website does not have any reports after 13 December, 2009 and the front page states that it was “Last updated 2nd Jan 2010” .
As any and all observers of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will agree, though the war with the LTTE has ended there is still a desperate need for human rights investigators as the ‘ethno-political conflict’ continues unabated. Strange then that such a prominent so-called ‘human rights’ organisation as UTHR-J should cease to operate so soon after the defeat of the LTTE.
The abduction and execution of the TRO 7 was the beginning of the crackdown by the current administration on Sri Lankan Civil Society and the international organisations operating in the country in the lead up to the return to war. This intimidation of civil society, the media, and those who oppose the administration continues to this day.
In a speech to international and national humanitarian organisations and UN Agencies at the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) on 3 February, 2006, a few days after the abduction of the TRO staff, a TRO representative warned these organisations that if they did not speak up and take action on behalf of the TRO humanitarian staff that they would be next:
“The CHA and civil society in general must not be naive to the implications of this specific incident on their own operations, programs, and staff. If a strong unified face is not shown to the outrages of the past week our fear is that it will be “open season” on international and local NGO’s… What is especially troubling to TRO has been the reaction of the media, civil society, the government and the law enforcement authorities to the two kidnappings TRO has been the victim of this past week. The question, however distasteful must be asked, “Would all of these actors’ responses be the same had Sarvodaya, Sewalanka or any other “southern” NGO been the victim of these crimes.” ( Click here )
These words would prove prescient in the next months and years as August 2006 saw the execution of 17 national staff of the French NGO Action Contre La Faim (ACF), numerous other attacks on TRO staff and offices, the expulsion of the UN from the Vanni on 16 September 2008, and the slaughter in the final stages of the war with the LTTE, which were conducted without any international witnesses as a result of the expulsion of the UN and denial of access to the international media.
No real investigations of the case were pursued by the GoSL and the case of the TRO 7 was not included in the 16 cases that President Rajapaske referred to the “Presidential Commission of Inquiry” (November 2006) and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) (February 2007).
Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SL HRC) did appoint a Special Rapporteur to investigate the TRO 7 case, as well as four other cases, but unfortunately this report was never published even though it was submitted to Ms. Coomaraswamy near the end of her tenure as Chairperson.
Ms. Coomaraswamy left the SL Human Rights Commission (SL HRC) to take up the post of United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. For the complete report and a more in-depth analysis of this controversy see:
TRO knew of the report, as the Special Rapporteur had interviewed TRO staff. A TRO press release raised the issue of the unpublished report in March 2007: “The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka investigated the case and made a report to its head that has never been released.”
The case of the TRO 7 that we pause to remember today is only one case among hundreds of thousands of human rights abuses over the 66 years of Sri Lankan independence. Some Sri Lankan and international observers and commentators like to pretend that the culture of impunity that engulfs Sri Lanka is a product of the current administration, unfortunately this is not the case.
The breakdown of the ‘rule of law’ in Sri Lanka is not a recent occurrence and neither is the all- pervasive impunity with which the state and its agents operate. Not only is it common place for people to disappear and/or be extra-judicially executed, but it is also standard operating procedure for no serious investigation, arrests, or convictions to take place.
In Sri Lanka the only thing that is a constant is the culture of impunity that engulfs the state and its supporters. This ensures that the human rights abuses of the past continue unabated. And so the ethno-political conflict continues…