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Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Politics of Disappearance: An Update from Northern Sri Lanka

The Social ArchitectsTough 

Ground Realities [1]
The conclusion of war has not heralded a return to peace in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Community members are still struggling with a myriad of problems related to human rights, militarization, sexual violence, alcoholism, unemployment, displacement and a lack of media freedom, among other issues. Unfortunately, community members can’t even express themselves freely about the missing or the disappeared; state security personnel maintain a firm grip on all aspects of civilian life in the war-torn North. In some instances, their freedom of movement has also been restricted. It looks like the situation is getting worse.

March 5, Restrictions on Freedom of Movement in Vavuniya

Families from across the Northern Province came to Vavuniya in twelve buses. They had intended to participate in an event on March 6 in Colombo to mourn their disappeared family members and to protest in search of answers.

Members of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) and Sri Lankan military personnel stopped these people in Vavuniya and did not allow them to proceed. According to information obtained by The Social Architects (TSA), as many as 750 community members were blocked in Vavuniya because the state’s security apparatus did not allow them to travel freely. Many of them stayed in Vavuniya and then protested there the following day (on March 6).

Pervasive Military Questioning and Intimidation

Sri Lanka’s continued militarization has created obvious problems in the country’s conflict-affected areas. In Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna, security personnel have recently gone to peoples’ homes and made inquiries regarding people’s participation in the previously mentioned March 6 Vavuniya event. Security personnel also went to the organizers’ places of residence and questioned them. State security personnel were asking a lot of questions, including the following:

Did you go to Vavuniya? Who arranged the travelling? Do you know other people who participated in the event? Who organized the event? [2]

In some areas, Grama Sevakas [Sri Lankan public officials] are questioning community members. Several of them recently called families in and asked questions about the Vavuniya event, including the following: Who disappeared from your house? When did that person disappear? Did you participate in this event? Who arranged your transportation? Who helped organize the event?

Based on interviews conducted by TSA, in Kanagambigaikulam (Kilinochchi), army civil officers went to peoples’ homes[3] and instructed them to come to their office.[4] Some family members who went there were interrogated by army civil officers for the same matter. On other occasions, TID officers questioned people at their places of residence.

The officers wanted to know what people were doing the day before the March 6 event. On March 8, military personnel had told some people that they should not participate in events like the one that was held on March 6 in Vavuniya.

Interrogations at Joseph Army Camp

In addition, security personnel have been questioning people who have filed cases with the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID). Families who had lodged a complaint about the missing/disappeared and are living in remote villages have been asked to travel to Joseph Army Camp. When security forces make such a request, community members are expected to pay for their travel. Since economic marginalization remains a concern in Sri Lanka’s conflict-affected areas, this places additional strains on these families.

Further, instead of responding to queries made by the UN, it appears that the Rajapaksa regime has decided to interrogate those families and individuals who have made submissions to WGEID. If interrogations by security personnel come as a result of WGEID submissions, it is likely that fewer community members will file cases with that body. (Many community members have already reported that they are now afraid to give out any additional information to WGEID).

While legitimate investigations about disappearances should usually be undertaken by the police, it does not look like police officers have been very keen to investigate cases. [5] Rather, instead of investigating cases of disappearance, it looks like some CID officers are more interested in questioning people about their UN communications. Further, it is not clear why the military has been so involved in matters related to UN communications; it looks like they are undertaking many of the interrogations.

Earlier this month, some community members (who have family members who were disappeared) were asked to show up at Vavuniya’s Joseph Army Camp. At that army camp, members of the TID collected personal information from them (as if those community members were filling out an affidavit). Community members told TSA that members of TID collected up to six pages of information from each person who was questioned. In addition, community members were asked to sign each page that they had filled out. Some community members told TID that they had now given security personnel the same information two or three times. (This information included the date their family member disappeared, relevant photos, that person’s address, the location of the disappearance, educational information and their relatives’ most recent address).

Members of TID also asked family members who else they informed regarding this matter. Community members told TSA that they had informed a range of organizations about the disappearance of their loved one(s) including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and other NGOs. Many community members also indicated that this information was conveyed to TID during their interrogation(s).

Regrettably, government bodies like the District and Divisional Secretariat are not very interested in collecting information on disappearances because they have been told by senior officers in the Kilinochchi District Secretariat that they should not do that.

A Father’s Story [6]

A man from Northern Sri Lanka moved into army-controlled territory in May 2009. At that time, his son (a married twenty-seven-year-old LTTE cadre) was handed over to military personnel in a village in Mullaitivu. The father saw his son get on a bus with several dozen other LTTE cadres.

In July 2009, the man filed a complaint about his son’s disappearance at Joseph Army Camp. Since that time, the father has gone to Joseph Army Camp as many as ten times. On each occasion he has provided information and pictures of his child. Yet, as of the writing of this report, he still has not received any information about his son’s whereabouts.

The father also participated in the March 6 event in Vavuniya; he returned to his home the following day. On March 9, TID officers went to his home and interrogated him about his participation in that event.

The man was subsequently ordered by TID officers to appear at Joseph Army Camp at the end of March 2013. Consequently, he went to Joseph Army Camp and was interrogated by TID officers for approximately four hours. At that time, the investigating officers obtained information about his son, and his family members’ and relatives’ place of birth and current addresses. After asking all of their questions, TID officers prepared a lengthy report in Sinhala and requested that the father sign every page. (The report looked like an affidavit). Since the man is able to read Sinhala, he asked to read the report, which TID officers allowed.

As he was reading, the father discovered the following sentence: “I never saw my son being taken away by the army; he just went missing during the final phase of the war.” The father became upset after reading this sentence and told TID officers that he “can’t put his signature on this document because I handed my son over to the army in a Mullaitivu village. And, to the best of my knowledge, my son was taken by the army in a bus. My wife, my son’s wife and I all witnessed this incident. So you all cannot write this in your report.”

The man returned to his home later that evening, although he believes that state security personnel will follow him and perhaps even threaten him in the future.

Stories from a Few Grieving Mothers
Over the past few weeks, TSA spoke with a range of conflict-affected women who are still missing loved ones. A few of their stories are recounted below.

A Woman from a Village outside of Mullaitivu town

Both her two sons and husband were disappeared in April 2009. Understandably, she wanted to take part in the March 6 Colombo event and had arrived in Vavuniya on March 5. Yet, while she was eating at a restaurant in Vavuniya, two members of the state security apparatus interrogated her.[7] (The questioning took place in the restaurant). She was then threatened by those two men. During the interrogation, the men told her not to go to the Colombo event and that she should return to her home.

The woman told the men that she would not travel to Colombo, stating that she would go home instead. But she did not go home. The next day, she participated in the event in Vavuniya. During that event, she was followed by the same two men who had interrogated her. Once she realized what was happening, the woman said that she became very afraid.

Women from Mullaitivu

A few days ago, a mother from Mullaitivu whose husband had disappeared in April 2009 was crying. She also participated in the March 6 event in Vavuniya. She shared the following information with TSA:

My husband left us on the 4th of April, 2009. He still has not returned. When he disappeared I was seven months pregnant. My daughter was born in a refugee camp in Cheddikulam [8]; she’s now almost four-years-old. She’s never met her father. She’s been with me…searching for him. A lot of people saw that Channel 4 video where many Tamils were killed. Most of my relatives and neighbors have seen it. People have told me that my husband is in that video. But I didn’t see the Channel 4 video; I don’t ever want to see it. It makes me afraid. I am 100 percent sure that my husband is alive….that he will return someday.

Another woman’s teenage daughter disappeared in May 2009, [9] following the conclusion of the war. She was living in Menik Farm. Beginning in July, this woman went to the Vavuniya police station each every Wednesday for seven weeks. Travelling from Menik Farm on each occasion, she kept asking about her daughter’s whereabouts.

The mother had submitted her daughter’s photo during her first visit to the Vavuniya police station in July 2009. At that time, a police officer said he recognized the girl and even showed the mother a photo of her daughter that a police officer had taken with his camera phone. The mother was told that the photo was taken after her daughter had arrived in army-controlled territory in May 2009. After seven weeks, the police sent the mother to the TID at Joseph camp and told her to file a complaint with them, instead of filing one at the police station.


Existing state structures are not protecting the fundamental rights of community members; transgressors include the country’s political administration and the state security apparatus. State institutions should support community members, not harass them.

Nearly four years since the conclusion of the war, the regime in Colombo remains uninterested in matters related to reconciliation and human rights. Community members are not even able to conduct peaceful protests, deliver documents to the UN, or access some of country’s domestic mechanisms. The nexus between UN communications and state security personnel’s consistent interrogation of civilians has people worried.

These acts of oppression should be condemned. With another Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution hanging over its head, the autocratic Rajapaksa regime has moved ever closer to pariah status. Yet, the regime is clearly not concerned with its most recent Geneva fiasco; Minister of External Affairs GL Peiris has already come out and said that the regime plans to disregard the HRC resolution.

The events that have recently transpired are reprehensible and detrimental to Sri Lanka’s chances for a lasting peace. Trouble’s brewing in Northern Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, there’s little which indicates the situation will improve in the near term.


  • [1] In order to write this paper, TSA conducted field research in March and April 2013.
  • [2] A few community members admitted that they had participated, while others who did participate denied it.
  • [3] Evidently army civil officers only visited people who have disappeared family members.
  • [4] Security personnel informed people at their places of residence on March 17. It was requested that community members come to the office of army civil officers from March 20-25. The office is located near the Iranaimadhu tank.
  • [5] In Vavuniya, this list of disappeared persons was compiled by people at Joseph Camp in May of 2009 (at the conclusion of the war). This is the list that state security personnel have been using to question people. It has been reported that a longer list has been divided according to district and GN division.
  • [6] TSA has provided readers with a few illustrative examples which show the difficulties that community members are facing vis-à-vis their missing/disappeared family members. Many more stories were shared with TSA as the group undertook its field research.
  • [7] It remains unclear whether those who interrogated the woman were members of the TID or the CID.
  • [8] Cheddikulam refers to an area in Zone 3 of Menik Farm, Vavuniya.
  • [9] The daughter had been moving from Mullivaikkal to an army-controlled area; she was travelling with a priest at the time. In May 2009, policeman took a photo of girl when she surrendered in army-controlled territory; this photo was shown to the girl’s mother in July 2009.


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