Recently organizations representing the mothers and relatives of those who involuntarily (forced) disappeared, after the war, marked the thousandth day of their demonstration, rallies, road-side campaign etc. During this long period, the mothers have demanded the government to produce their sons and daughters handed over to the army at Omanthai military camp during rounding up of suspected militants as well as those who surrendered on May 18, 2009. They sought answers to the nagging questions “What happened to our loved ones, in most cases, we ourselves handed them to the armed forces” from the government, UNHRC and foreign diplomats.
Amnesty International defines Victims of enforced disappearance are people who have literally disappeared; from their loved ones and their community. They go missing when state officials (or someone acting with state consent) grab them from the street or from their homes and then deny it, or refuse to say where they are. Sometimes disappearances may be committed by armed non-state actors, like armed opposition groups. And it is always a crime under international law.
Enforced disappearance is frequently used as a strategy to spread terror among people. The feeling of insecurity and fear it generates is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared but also affects communities as a whole.
The affected persons strongly believe, perhaps naively, that their beloved ones are still alive and they are kept in clandestine military detention cells/centres/camps.
When ex-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was confronted by angry parents who wanted to know the whereabouts of their loved ones, he was truthful about the disappeared. In his answer, Ranil said that the government had made every effort to trace the missing detainees in army custody but found none.
He then said the missing persons must be presumed dead. This answer only helped to worsen the already highly charged emotive atmosphere.
Today, Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was the Defence Secretary during the war had won the presidential race on the SLPP platform with an impressive majority. This has raked up those awful and nightmarish memories about the enforced missing persons. For years since 2009 May, the relatives of the missing persons are pointing fingers at Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the person responsible for execution-style murders of LTTE leaders/cadres/civilians who surrendered to the army some with white flags. The White flag surrender was facilitated by President Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa. Those who surrendered with white flags were advised to hold the flags high so that the soldiers can see them at a distance.
So far, despite the promise by the previous Government, no one has been held accountable for extrajudicial killings during the war. But the mothers and relatives of the missing persons hold Gotabaya Rajapaksa accountable in his capacity as the Defence Secretary. Those he is only the Defence Secretary, he was virtually the Defence Minister as well. He alone took decisions regarding the overall war strategy against the LTTE. Mahinda Rajapaksa was Defence Minister in name only.
As Defence Secretary Gotabaya directed all military operations and gave orders to the Commanders in the field bypassing the Army Commander. This was disclosed by Sarath Fonseka many times. As the person who directed the entire war machinery, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is accused of ordering torture, rape and abductions and murders of thousands of Tamils.
When Rajapaksas (Gotabaya, Mahinda and Namal) went to the North for election campaign relatives of involuntarily disappeared persons held a protest rally before the Nallur Murugan temple. They have also been protesting against the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for not doing anything about the missing persons. They are displaying US and EU flags in the hope of drawing enlisting support of those countries.
During his election campaign, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has studiously avoided giving interviews to the press knowing well that many upsetting questions will be fired at him about missing persons, extra-judicial killings and LTTE surrendees who went missing after the surrender.
At the first press conference held at Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo on 16 October 2019, a grinning Gotabaya Rajapaksa dodged questions about enforced disappearances and missing surrendees. He struggled to answer tough questions thrown by journalists and forced to acknowledge the military leadership of Sarath Fonseka. He denied Paranagama Commission findings of ‘missing’ persons.
Challenged repeatedly about those LTTE cadres who went missing after surrender to the 58 Division, President Gotabaya who had previously claimed credit for the military victory denied any role in the management of the victory and its outcome and tried to pass the blame on to the Army Commanding officers in the field!
When pressed further about a large number of detainees and missing persons, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed credit for the rehabilitation of all of them.
His manifesto launched on 25 October 2019, inter-alia, said “Even though we took steps to pardon, rehabilitate and release 13,784 Tiger members who surrendered with arms, such steps were not taken in relation to soldiers who faced different accusations related to the wartime. It further said steps were taken to “systematically rehabilitate and reintegrate” into society not only soldiers but also members of the Tamil Tigers who are facing different accusations related to the war. But the affected families say they saw their relatives taken away in buses by soldiers but never seen again.
Sri Lanka’s government ordered Tamil rebels and any civilians with remote relations to the rebel group to surrender after they were boxed inside a narrow strip of land in the final days of the war on May 18. 2009.
While Gotabaya Rajapaksa claims the government released 13,784 LTTE surrendees, his manifesto does not talk about the missing. He told reporters that no one had disappeared other than those who participated in active combat, and that included thousands of soldiers. He urged people to forget the past and move on.
Here is how the questions and answers went during the press meet according to the Daily News dated October 16, 2019 –
Q: What happened to the people who surrendered to the security forces since you were leading the military at that time? Could you please tell us what happened to the people who surrendered? Where are they?
A: You are mistaken I think, I was not leading the Army.
Q: Your brother was?
A: No! No! The Army was led by the Army commander
Q: You were the defence secretary, what will you tell the people who ask that question?
A: About 13,784 surrendered and they were rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. They were given employment in the Civil Security Force and some of them were recruited in the military as well. We had one of the most successful rehabilitation programmes. Even foreign observers commended our programmes.
Q: Does that mean that there are no missing persons?
A: Even in the military, over 4,000 officers and soldiers went missing during the war in the battlefield. Once, I went to Jaffna Fort and even we couldn’t recover the bodies of the military personnel. People are missing. Similarly, a number of soldiers are missing.
Q: Some say those who surrendered did not return? So are they lying?
A: No! Somebody can say that but that is an allegation. We had a commission on this. There were no cases like that.
Q: Even the Paranagama Commission of your time said there were such cases
A: I don’t think so.
Q: It was said that various census and statistical surveys were conducted which came out with numbers. What was the process that you had in mind to carry this forward?
A: You are talking all the time about the past. Ask about the future. If you concentrate on the future, it is better I think.
Q: But can you move on without addressing the past?
A: Yeah sure, can move on.
Questioned about the UN Human Rights Council resolutions, especially 30/1 of 2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly described the UNHCR resolutions as “illegal”, but said that if elected to power he would work with the UN and human rights organisations in resolving contentious issues.
On 01 December 2014, the Government Information Department said that 12,030 rehabilitated former LTTE cadres have already been reintegrated into society. It also stated that a majority of the rehabilitated ex-cadres have been granted employment in both the public and private sectors.
The then Minister of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms Minister DEW Gunasekera had said the number put through rehabilitation is 11,969 LTTE cadres who surrendered to the Security Forces. He expressed these views at the meeting held in the Sri Lanka Leftists’ Movement Batticaloa District Office.
Ignoring the minor discrepancies in the figures given out by different sources, it will appear about 12,000 LTTE cadres surrendered to the army after the war came to an end on May 19, 2009. However, there is significant difference between Ministry of Rehabilitation 12,000 and the figure 13,784 given by President Rajapaksa in his manifesto.
In 2018 two former Ministers from the Rajapaksa administration acknowledged that those who surrendered to the military had been killed while in protected custody. OMP chair Saliya Peiris has said that he requested the list of surrendees from the authorities, but he never received any list. In 2016, a senior military commander revealed in courts that the 58 Division, which is accused of committing war crimes, is in possession of a list of those who surrendered to the security forces. The General Officer Commanding (GOC), 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army, Major General Kavinda Chanakya Gunawardena told Mullaitivu Magistrate Court that his division holds a list of all the LTTE cadres who surrendered to the military.
In an explosive interview with The Sunday Leader General Fonseka, the then Army Commander said he had no information communicated to him in the final days of the war that three key LTTE leaders had opted to surrender to Sri Lanka’s armed forces as the battle drew to a bloody finish. He told Frederica Jansz that Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed a key ground commander in the north that all LTTE leaders must be killed and not allowed to surrender. Later, under pressure, Sarath Fonseka retracted his statement.
The 30/1 UN resolution titled, ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ was co-sponsored by the present Sri Lankan government.
“We will work with UN and Human Rights organisations as well in solving issues but the resolution is not something we signed,” presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.
When asked about the rights of ethnic minorities, however, the presidential candidate emphasised the need for the economic upliftment of minority areas.
The controversy surrounding the exact number of cadres of the LTTE who surrendered to the Sri Lanka Army during the final stages of the war, has resurfaced with the claim by Sri Lanka Army that LTTE cadres had not surrendered to them while families of missing LTTE cadres insist they handed over their sons and daughters to the Army camp at Omanthai.
The Army had made this claim in response to a Right to Information (RTI) application submitted by a journalist seeking information on LTTE cadres who reportedly surrendered to the military during the final stages of the war.
The blatantly false response has stirred emotions among the families of missing persons, former LTTE cadres as well as Tamil politicians. A former LTTE cadre Chandralingam alias Thulasi who surrendered to the Army and underwent rehabilitation told the weekly English newspaper The Sunday Morning that there was no doubt LTTE cadres did surrender directly to the army.
The Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) estimates that at least 21,000 have disappeared from the predominantly Tamil north and east during the war. “Families and civil society representatives in the districts made a number of recommendations that the OMP will take forward, including the use of mobile offices for more remote areas, prioritisation of the cases of persons who have reported to have surrendered to the military in May 2009 and then disappeared and the need for immediate relief,” OMP stated in its interim report in August 2018.
OMP chair Saliya Peiris has said that he requested the list of surrendees from the authorities. In 2016, a senior military commander revealed in courts that the 58 Division, which is accused of committing war crimes, is in possession of a list of those who surrendered to the security forces.
The General Officer Commanding (GOC), 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army, Major General Kavinda Chanakya Gunawardena told Mullaitivu Magistrate Court that his division holds a list of all the Tamil Tiger rebels who surrendered to the military. However, the commander failed to provide the document in court.
An Army Court of Inquiry (COI) established by post-war military commander Jagath Jayasuriya in 2012 also acknowledged that the military did indeed capture LTTE cadres.
“The Sri Lanka Army had acted in a very professional manner taking very elaborate measures to avoid civilian casualties and all persons, including captured/surrendered LTTE cadres,” said the COI report.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by Sri Lanka’s wartime president registered in 2011 a total of 53 LTTE cadres who surrendered during the final days of the war and were alleged to have disappeared.
I have written articles on the extra-judicial murder of those LTTE leaders who surrendered with White flags. The surrender was facilitated by Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. They were told to hold the flag high so that the soldiers can see them. On the morning of May 18, 2009, when B. Nadesan Head of the LTTE Political Wing, Seevaratnam Pulithevan of the LTTE Peace Secretariat and Col. Ramesh (Ilango) Head of the LTTE Police Force approached the 58 division at Vadduvaakal along with about 300 LTTE cadres and civilians they were gun down! Some of them like Nadesan, Pulithevan and Col. Ramesh (Ilango) were tortured before being killed. ing them. Their bullet-ridden and tortured bodies were seen lying on the ground.
On the same day in the evening middle-ranking LTTE cadres (some of them non-combatants) like Elilan, Yogi, Balakumar. Poet Rathnathurai, Thilakar and others surrendered to the army. They were taken in CTB buses for a ‘short inquiry’ in the presence of their spouses and friends. Fr. Joseph Francis, a Catholic Priest, took down the names of the surrendees and then seen boarding a bus. After that fateful day, they all went missing. A photograph showing Balakumar and his son seated what seems to be a military camp appeared in the media.
I have given more details and list of surrendees in my articles I wrote and published previously by Colombo Telegraph.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, it is an exercise in futility for the Army to deny that no LTTE cadre surrendered to the army. Or the story Army only facilitated in handing over the LTTE cadres to the Officials of the Ministry of Rehabilitation.
At least four individuals are privy to the truth. They are Gotabaya Rajapaksa then Defence Secretary, Mythripala Sirisena then Acting Defence Minister, Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne Commanding officers of the 53rd and 58 Army Division that took part in the last stages of the war. Interestingly Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now the President, Shavendra Silva promoted as Army Commander by the previous government and Kamal Gunaratne appointed as Secretary to the Defence Ministry. All of them together can solve the riddle and put at rest the thousands of relatives of the missing persons who continue to be engaged in roadside protests.
Though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said UNHRC Resolution 30/1 which called for the establishment of a credible justice process that includes the establishment of a special ‘hybrid court’ to investigate war crimes committed by those responsible won’t recognize the agreement the government co-sponsored to investigate alleged war crimes during the nation’s civil war. “We will always work with the United Nations, but I can’t recognize what they have signed” with past Sri Lankan governments, Rajapaksa said at a news conference held on October 15, 2019.
Newly appointed Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena had said that the new government will review Resolution 30/1 entitled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.’ President Gotabaaya is reported to have instructed his ministers to review all agreements signed during the UNF government and renegotiate them if they violate the constitution. When in opposition the SLPP attacked Resolution 30/1 as a sellout.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson said the government’s plan to review United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1, ‘for promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights’ in Sri Lanka would have serious repercussions for the country at the international level.
Families of the disappeared in Vavuniya condemned Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s denial of hundreds of cases of disappearances of surrendered Tamils after the end of the war. Staging a rally at their roadside spot in Vavuniya town they slammed the “various opinions that have been expressed with the aim of sabotaging [our] struggle.”
“We are not asking about the children who were killed by the Sri Lankan army’s bombings,” the families said referring to Rajapaksa’s comments that war-time deaths could lead to missing bodies. “We are asking for the children we handed over to the army at the Omanthai checkpoint in the days after the war ended.”
“We have all the evidence. How can people say that there was no such [surrendering] incident in Sri Lanka when we are the eyewitnesses?”
Defying UNHRC’s demands for accountability, justice and rule of law are bound to set Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government on a collision course with the Western countries who sponsored Resolution 30/1. No wonder these countries have not extended the customary pleasantries following his appointment as President. He has earned a name for him for his autocratic leadership style in the past.
Let me conclude by a quote from Kural, a book on ethics and morality and praised for its universality and non-denominational nature, on the subject “The Cruel Sceptre”.
Will, not the tears, shed by the oppressed become
Sharp instruments to wear the monarch’s wealth away? (Kural 555)