When a state abducts and arrests its citizens and hide from the knowledge of their loved ones and the public their whereabouts, one sees the brutal face of sovereign authority. This is a point where the state morphs into a totalitarian institution. The enforced disappearances of citizens who challenge the authority of a state sends out a chilling warning to those who have been spared of its iron grips: if you rise up in protest—armed or otherwise—against the state, you will be met with a similar fate. The roadside protests by the mothers and relatives of those who were made to disappear in the North and East during the civil war has posed a challenge to the sovereign authority of the Sri Lankan state while exposing its cruelty to a section of its people. These protests reach their second year this month. With the UNHRC sessions about to commence in March, the relatives of the disappeared have called for a major protest in Kilinochchi today demanding justice for the disappeared from the Sri Lankan state, the international community and the United Nations.
Today’s protest has received the support of the Tamil and Muslim political parties, civil society organizations, trade unions and the student bodies of the University of Jaffna and Eastern University of Sri Lanka. Some of these organizations have called for a complete shut down in the Northern Province. While protests are essential to draw the attention of local and international bodies towards the struggles of those who occupy the margins of the state and society, one should also reflect on the appropriateness of Hartals as a mode of resistance. Hartals may help consolidate resistance and give visibility to the critical questions that people, especially the minorities, marginalized communities and workers, raise collectively about the nature of the states under which they live and the international order that these states make up. However, one has to acknowledge there is a flip side to Hartals too, for they disrupt the provision of essential services and undermine the livelihood of daily-wage-earners and small vendors among others. Whether or not the Hartal can act as an effective way of channeling our resistance needs to be studied carefully taking into account the ways in which it affects the people of various walks of life in the region.
The structural violence the Tamils and other minority communities have faced in Sri Lanka since Independence and the failure of the Sinhala-centric governments to resolve this crisis in a just manner has pushed the Tamils into turning increasingly towards international actors such as the United Nations for solutions. Although the internationalization of the conflict has not led to any radical transformation in the political system of the country, it should be understood as an outcome of the lack of political will on the part of the Southern leadership to introspect into its actions against the minorities and re-imagine the state in inclusive and pluralist terms. The Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) set up by the state to find the status of those who were made to disappear started its operations almost a year ago. However, it is yet to win the trust of the relatives of the disappeared. While recognizing that the OMP “has the potential to find the truth about the fate of and whereabouts of at least some of the disappeared persons,” rights activist Ruki Fernando noted in 2017 that “in the overall context it comes about, there is very little hope and confidence this could happen.” He observed that the government had to take efforts to “build hope and confidence [among those who are searching for their loved ones] in the OMP.” The ethno-nationalist separatists in the North use the inaction on the part of the state to demonize Tamil actors who still want to engage the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala polity on political solutions. The continuing failure of the state to address issues like enforced disappearances and find a political solution to the national question has allowed divisive forces to expand their political base in the North.
The international community including the various organs of the United Nations have done little to address the concerns of those who are demanding justice for the disappeared. These organs do not rein in states like Sri Lanka and Israel which systematically stifle protests and resistance that interrogate their exclusivist agendas. The UN as an organization committed to world peace acted in feeble, indecisive ways when minorities, marginalized communities and workers faced assaults from authoritarian governments. It overtly and tacitly grants legitimacy to sovereign violence by the states in existence by aiding their ruling classes to repress political opposition and insurgencies with brutal force. The international order, which is under the domination of economically powerful states with neo-imperial, neoliberal interests, is as much a failure as the local systems of governance as far as justice for sovereign violence in the global south is concerned.
In many ways, powerful states and supranational bodies coexist on the tacit understanding that unless these states have economic and political interests in countries in the global south where human rights violations take place, the latter can be allowed to wield their authority to suppress local struggles for change and justice. Such a critique of supranational organizations like the UN, albeit necessary, should not prevent us from engaging them on issues that they are mandated to address. While we cannot expect much from these organizations given their track record in addressing the conflicts that happened in our country and many other parts of the world, there need to be more avenues for greater solidarity among those who face persecution and political oppression in the different parts of the world to make these organizations work better for justice or to create new organizations that can maintain their independence from neo-colonial forces.
Today’s protests in the North will give a central place to the role of the Sri Lankan state in the disappearances that happened in the North and East. However, there are many other sides to the history of forcible disappearances in the region. In a heart-wrenching account, Rajan Hoole documents how Chelvi Thiagarajah, who was a student at the University of Jaffna, was made to disappear by the LTTE in 1990. The LTTE may be a dead horse but its ideology of demonizing dissenters and those who hold alternative political views is still alive in the region. One might even meet at the protests today nationalist activists who defended in the past the atrocities committed by the LTTE including the disappearances that the Movement was responsible for. Today’s protests, unless they kindle among the Tamils a self-appraisal of the internal violence that resulted in the disappearance and elimination of the dissenters, will be exploited for their personal gains by our self-righteous, populist leaders who shy away from dealing with the difficult questions our shared past has thrown at us regarding the kind of liberation struggle that was fought in the North-East.
It is not just Tamils but Muslims and some Sinhalese in the region too who fell victim to the terror of both the state and other authoritarian actors who operated in the North and East. The following narrative figuring in one of the reports by the University Teachers for Human Rights records the disappearance of a Sinhalese in the East during the war.
Mr.Silva (September– 22nd) Mr. Silva was a Sinhalese well known to all at Sorikalmunai because he is the only one who could-speak well in all 3 languages. He came there nearly 40 years ago as a government officer who was in charge of the houses built in that colony. He married a Tamil girl and was settled there. He had 6 girls and 2 boys. His elder son was already married. After his retirement he put up a small boutique and his sons also joined in his business.
Being a Sinhalese he didn’t have much difficulty in bringing food items passing the army camp. Some army and Muslims had falsely accused his younger son of giving food to the Tigers. In August the army had taken away the younger son. It was learnt that he was dead.
Mr. Silva was popular among the villagers for having acted as a spokesman whether it was during the IPKF’s time or the Sri Lankan army’s time. It made the Muslims and Sinhalese angry with him. Following the round-up at Sorikalmunai people left the College and the Church for various neighbouring villages. Some came down to Thirukkovil through interim paths while several others went down the slimy water of the Chavalakaddai lagoon and gone to Pandiruppu. Mr. Silva, being a Sinhalese, thought that he could go down the only main road which connects Chavalakaddai and Kalmunai with his elder son. They never reached Kalmunai. It is believed that both of them were hacked to death by the army and their bodies were burnt.
Like the saga of many Tamils and Muslims in the North-East who were made to disappear, the narrative about Mr. Silva and his son’s disappearance/death ends on a note of painful uncertainty. In the South, too, mothers have been searching for their sons and daughters who were made to disappear during the counter-insurgency against the JVP. These narratives help us understand the ways in which the histories of disappearance in the North-East and the rest of the country, while having their specific reasons and trajectories, cut across ethnic boundaries. They also underscore the importance of communities working together across the ethnic divide in holding the state accountable for the disappearances that happened in this country.
The prolonged search for truth and justice by the mothers and relatives of the disappeared has led to the deterioration of the physical and emotional wellbeing of many of them. Local politicians, the state and the international community have drained them of their energy by repeatedly reneging on the promises they made to the protesters; but nevertheless the protesters’ will to truth-seeking keeps the struggle and the question of justice alive. Some of these mothers and fathers have died without finding a closure to their quest. Others suffer from the trauma of loss and the memories of the circumstances under which their children were handed over to the state. They do not know whether their children are dead or alive and do not want to participate in rituals of mourning and remembrance. Their everyday lives shuttle excruciatingly between hope and despair, not to mention the economic hardships many of them face. The Prime Minister’s recent appeal to the Tamils to forget and forgive the violence that happened in the past rings insincere and escapist in light of the pain and sorrow that has engulfed the lives of these protesting women. Without bringing to light the whereabouts of those who were made to disappear by the state and other actors, there is no remedy to the suffering that the mothers of the disappeared have been going through since they last saw their children. We as citizens and communities need to rise above the ethnic divisions that have taken root in the country in urging the state to reveal the truth about those who were made to disappear.
*Mahendran Thiruvarangan is attached to the Department of Linguistics & English, University of Jaffna