Batticaloa, Colombo, Galle, Human Rights, Human Security, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Trincomalee

White Vans, Disappearances And Abductions

Lets talk about white vans, disappearances and abductions. How much do people who don’t speak in Tamil know about these subjects, and conversely how much do people who speak in Tamil know about these things? I will get to these odd questions in a bit.

Being a Colombo-based Sinhalese person, I found the occasional reference to white vans, in the last year or so, curious but I didn’t come across a clear description of what it was in the media. The media and people I talk to are my only sources of news about the world.

My best guess and reaction was “ah, the van was used in an abduction! I wonder why the vehicle was a white van. Don’t people get abducted in blue vans?”

Why am I describing my naivety in detail? It is to convey a sense of the information barriers and the separate information zones that we live in. Some people know all about white vans, while others know nothing about white vans. It’s that simple. To not recognize and understand this could be to miss a vital element of the conflict in this country.

My attempts to get more information often failed, which was frustrating. Maybe it was my ethnicity, and the people I associated with. I would come up against a silent wall. No media reports that I read, government statements, official NGO press releases or situation reports that I came across seemed to provide much description of it.

Asking more questions slowly yielded results so I will mention what I know here. If I seem pretty ignorant, I am not going to be ashamed of that. I would rather talk about it and reflect a deep structural problem in this country that affects whole communities of people.

As far as I can gather white vans, on the surface, is a shortened reference to abductions that people are too scared to speak about descriptively, in which some people with affluence and clout, i.e. having the ability to possess a white van, having done the abducting.

If carried out in government-controlled territory, which is heavily militarised in the north and east, then these people have acted with impunity ignoring the law. Having financial clout and the ability to flout the law in military zones means a few parties could be behind it: political parties having their own armed cadres (i.e. paramilitaries); personal bodyguards (or thugs) of politicians; military intelligence and other security forces groups; the Karuna faction; the LTTE, in no particular order.

A Batticaloa resident told me once that during ceasefire time he could count 7 or more armed groups that were operating in the east who belonged to the above groups. To me that sounded like a brutal gangland. Not a government province where the rule of law applied.

So lets consider them in random order. Why would military intelligence abduct people? It could be an officially sanctioned yet not openly disclosed policy to use methods outside of the law to fight LTTE terrorism. i.e. a use-any-means-necessary policy. I have heard this view from at least one well-connected Sinhalese person I know who thinks it’s a necessary evil and who supports it.

Another possibility is that some people within military intelligence are taking out their feelings of revenge and fear and see it as a means of reducing the conflict.

Why would political parties (EPRLF, EPDP etc) be abducting people, and be involved in extortion etc. What I gather is that it’s a mentality about protecting one’s own, eliminating threats, finding funds etc. As far as I know its just Tamil political parties that are referred to as paramilitaries, but I could be wrong here.

I am not aware of Sinhala armed groups that front as political parties.

So when the LTTE was protesting about paramilitaries killing people during ceasefire time is this what they were referring to? (it might be relevant to mention here the number of military intelligence people killed by the LTTE during ceasefire time, including in Colombo, for a balanced comment over ceasefire violations)

How do these paramilitaries operate in government territory? It could be the government’s inability to control them. It could also be an undisclosed policy of allowing any group that is opposed to the LTTE to exist, and seen as a necessary evil.

Most police personnel or soldiers don’t speak Tamil so their ability to really monitor and stop what is going on may also play a part.

Far worse could be that some people in police and security forces are allowing the abductions, killings and extortion to go on in their areas of jurisdiction as a way of exacting revenge or controlling the public. A similar notion about reactionary behaviour was expressed here on an earlier groundviews comment related to the restriction of telecom access.

As a small anecdote, a Batticaloa resident told me how some EPDP members were using rough language, threatening and demanding from everyone passing by that they buy an EPDP newspaper (the Thinamurasu). This was close to an army checkpoint in Batticaloa about two weeks ago. The EPDP – a Tamil political party in government opposed to the LTTE – has offices right next to an army camp in Valaichchenei, Batticaloa. This reflects being officially allowed to carry out their activities.

Probably the soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t know the EPDP was threatening people, as most of them, from what I am aware, don’t speak much Tamil.

On politicians being engaged in abductions, extortions and killings, this may not be surprising, given various stories that have made it to the press.

I was told that a couple of politicians were misusing their powers in the eastern province during ceasefire time. The inability of the police to enforce the law is no doubt encouraging this. If its weak in Colombo its probably worse in the north and east.

Most Sinhala-speaking people won’t doubt that the LTTE and Karuna cadres are capable of killings, abductions and extortion, while Tamil people are well aware of this. The LTTE and Karuna groups need to be answerable to someone, hopefully Tamil-speaking people. Or is it the government’s duty to reign in all criminals, miscreants and terrorists?

DBS Jeyaraj has an account of the abduction of 7 Tamil Rehabilitation Organization workers an year ago by the Karuna group. (The TRO is considered affiliated to the LTTE) Their subsequent rape and murder is described here.

Another post about the forced conscription of youth in the North and East by the LTTE can be found here. In it he says:

“Many Tamil people living in Northern areas controlled by LTTE are faced with the problem of increased tiger conscription. Intensified forcible recruitment since June last year has resulted in an estimated 10,000 persons being inducted into the LTTE over the past eight months

…Technically what is going on now in the tiger-dominated north is not a child conscription campaign. It is a campaign of abductions and forcible recruitment of the over seventeen’s.”

10,000 is a shocking number of abductions! Does anyone have any information supporting or rejecting this claim?

Attempts to get information about human rights violations from the Human Rights Commission offices are difficult but not impossible and need to be made available on their website. The Institute of Human Rights has little information and seems to be more interested in policy. The Civil Monitoring Committee seems to be going public with their findings, if anyone knows a link to an online report, that would be much appreciated.

So to wind down, there seems to be a different language in “white vans”, “done close to an army checkpoint”, “during curfew”, “unidentified gunmen” with people who use that language being not willing or too scared to say who they think really did it.

This language makes complete sense to people in the know, but for Sinhalese people living in Colombo or in Sinhalese towns and villages this just doesn’t make much sense. “It happened near an army checkpoint. Really? Maybe the soldiers didn’t see what happened then.”

This would be a wasted effort when in fact the author may have wanted to say that a paramilitary group was responsible and that the government bears some responsibility in stopping such activity and enforcing rule of law.

People rely on vernacular media for all their information. Sinhalese, and even English media generally don’t seem to give much prominence to disappearances and abductions. As we all know, many Sinhalese-speaking people don’t know Tamil and thus don’t have exposure to Tamil media.

What are the ramifications of this information blockage? The maintenance of law and order in the north and east is not an election issue for Sinhala-speaking people and there is not much pressure on the government from the public to do anything about it.

  • Firstly, how do you know that the majority view supports the military option? The South does not prioritise the conflict as the number one election issue. According to surveys carried out by research agencies, it prioritises cost-of-living instead. Further, there were a plethora of reasons why people in the South did not vote for Ranil Wickramasinghe, and his stance on the war was just one of those reasons. Moreover, had the Tamil population in the North and East been allowed to vote by the LTTE, Ranil Wickramasinghe would today be president. So, how do you figure the military option is the majority view? I tend to think that although many people have now convinced themselves of the merits of a military option (due to recent GoSL military successes), at the time of the Presidential election the majority were not for war.

    Secondly, the Sinhala media have covered this issue of disappearances. Sirasa coverd it extensively on Saturday night. I agree that it needs more coverage though as most people are not aware of the terror that others are undergoing.

  • Kapil

    Just on that point of media, how many people, does anybody know, watches Sirasa? With the long standing campaign against it that has branded it to the voice of Tigers in Colombo (brought on, at least in part, by its own sickening behaviour during the Presidential Elections in ’05 when it needlessly flung mud at the JVP) I honestly don’t believe that many tune into its news broadcasts. I guess what’s more important is how abductions are reporting in the State media, which have more coverage – I don’t read Sinhala newspapers at all, but I’ve been told that the coverage is really poor, or really biased – with reporting pointing fingers are everybody else other than the government. Of course the government may not be involved, but all the State media had to say about Alan Rock for instance was that he was biased, a fool, a LTTE sympathiser, and that he had been misled – not very helpful at all to get to the bottom of these disappearances.

    And has anybody else noticed the bodies turning up – one in the Kelani river I heard today.

    “Moreover, had the Tamil population in the North and East been allowed to vote by the LTTE, Ranil Wickramasinghe would today be president.”

    I wonder what to make of the current rumours about the secret pact between Mahinda and the LTTE that has everyone chattering with conspiracy theories…. I think that it is simplistic to say that the LTTE would have allowed Ranil to become Prez – I mean, this IS an organisation that has no bloody regard for democracy right? So Mahinda, with his interests flatly on war and not in any peace process or peace talks, they may have calculated then, would be a better bet who they could use to gather sympathy with the international community for a resumption of war unilaterally. Of course, things didn’t happen according to their plan.

    And yes, people in the South do seem to support the military option – fact of the matter is that they keep reading about how we are winning against the LTTE, and less about human rights abuses, abductions and disappearances.

    Ravana’s right about the cost of living as a major election issue. It was in 2005. Could it become one again in the near future?

  • The popularity of Sirasa as a channel is not in question. They have the reach, and some of the highest rated programmes because of their quality. Do you know about 45,000 people showed up as applicants for the 2nd Sirasa Super Star first round selection in Dambulla stadium? This is Dambulla, mind you. They had so many applicants, they were hoping some wouldn’t turn up having to travel all that way. I am not sure what the ratings for their news is, but I think it is pretty popular. It maybe second to Rupavahini and perhaps even Swarnavahini, but it is definitely not a distant third.

  • Kapil

    Hey Ravana,

    What I meant was whether Sirasa’s news was well received & watched. I agree that some of their programmes have a huge following, but that’s beside the point. Entertainment is one thing, news is another.

  • chamath

    Hi Ravana, Kapil,

    You are right, cost-of-living has been the number one issue for sinhala-speaking voters for a while from what I saw on the CPA social indicator polls but I gather there is more support now for the war, not just for the apparent successes in east but also the many attacks such as bus bombings in Kabathigollewa, Colombo, Meetiyagoda that killed civilians, the killing of an army general etc.

    Taking a look at the latest polls might shed more light on this, so if Groundviews can post that info, it will be much appreciated.

    Abductions and disappearances are making it to the news and I noticed good coverage on the Maharajah channels in the last couple of days, and some coverage on Daily Mirror recently.

    I hopes this continues with more description of who might be behind these disappearances. Today IGP Victor Perera has talked about abductions to reporters, but some contradictory reports are coming out from AFP and AP. The AFP report says the IGP admits many soldiers, policemen and deserters have been involved in abductions over the last several months, while the AP report does not carry that bit.

  • Chamath,

    Not sure what you are referring to, but it’s most like the Peace Confidence Index (PCI), the latest report of which is available here –

    Key findings include:

    • A majority of those polled state that peace can be achieved through peace talks. However, the support for a military solution is rising amongst the Sinhala community. At the polls conducted, a quarter of the Sinhala community extend their support for a military solution.
    • Opinions very significantly between the communities polled on the commitment of the Government and the LTTE to find peace through talks. Many Sinhalese agree that the Government is fully capable of finding peace through talks, whereas a majority of the Up-Country Tamil community agree that the LTTE is committed to find peace through talks.
    • Many of those polled feel Sri Lanka is no closer to a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict today when compared to last year. Accordingly, the majority of those polled believe that it is likely a war will resume.
    • The majority of Sinhalese amongst those polled agree that the Government should expand its military action including even to all out war in order to weaken the LTTE. Many Sinhalese also believe that the CFA has not benefited ordinary citizens and that it does not stand anymore.
    • Norway remains unpopular as a facilitator amongst the Sinhalese, the majority of whom are dissatisfied with its role and disapprove of it continuing to facilitate the peace process.
    • Many of those polled believe that India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process will have a positive impact
    • There is strong support amongst all communities for a separate Muslim representation at the peace talks.
    • A majority of the Sri Lankan community believe that it is the government that is responsible for protecting human rights. While 55% of the Sinhala community believe that the government has done enough to protect human rights, there is a sharp difference of opinion amongst the Sinhalese and Up-Country Tamils on this issue.

  • Crep

    Chamath may be your analyzing or views through your information exchange in all over the part of country. However you forget or left the reason and root cause for NGO officer abduction in north east which is LTTE infiltration into NGOs and the resentment that groups such as the JVP have created against NGOs in the south.

    According to our experience in the field we can find lot of reasons behind this. NGO’s and INGO’s have been involved in humanitarian work in Sri Lanka for over 50 years. In 1950’s there was strong support for Communist Camp in the south. Specially after the “Seguwera Insurgency” when the government quelled a communist revolution, foreign NGOs arrived in Sri Lanka to try and prevent communist ideas from arising again.

    Regarding this past experience the JVP is against all foreign aid agencies and does not want their presence in the country. They have a strong policy of trying to avoid their assistance. Economically most of the people on the south coast are under the poverty line. Therefore somewhere they fail to build up themselves among the people, who were in need at disaster time.

    On the other hand the LTTE used NGO’s, INGO’s as they wish. Few numbers of carders recruited as officers, drivers and volunteer’s etc. They worked as informers some time armed carders. Sometimes the LTTE created new NGO for their purpose like TRO.

    These things are well known by Karuna and people who were affected in the past. For example a driver from ICRC, who was actually an LTTE cadre, charged at people in Mutur and showed his support for the LTTE during the Mutur ethnic cleaning which was instigated by LTTE in 2006.

    Following day he came to refugees camp in Kantale where affected people identified him and tried to quarrel with him.
    2 Oxfam workers in custody of government security forces after the claymore attack at eastern university. 2 others GTZ field officers were questioned last week at Valaichenai police due to unauthorized money handling said Human rights commission.

    Few months ago JHU blame on ZOA regarding misclassifying of fishing board recovered by STF at Kanchikudichcharu LTTE base. Recently few evidences provided by the government forces misusing of assistance by the LTTE. At the same time few months ago investigation launched against on TRO head office regarding money misusing. these misusing created bad names on NGO’s.

    Some aid agencies hesitate facilitate in the north-east part. Religion wise VHP ( vishva hindu pariksath: it’s Hindu fundamental group in India) try to stop convention of Hindu people in to Christianity. There for they create anti NGO campaign in eastern part after the Tsunami.

    These things are main root case for the NGO people abduction by anti-LTTE groups such as paramilitaries, Karuna faction and military intelligence which I believe uses methods outside of the law to fight LTTE terrorism, like you mentioned in the article.

  • Dystopia

    “…five bullet-riddled bodies of unidentified men turned up in the north central district of Anuradhapura.

    This follows a similar discovery of five bodies near the capital Colombo Saturday and a sixth body found at the same site Monday.”

    Read this in a news report today. I’m sure one of these bodies was called Peace.

  • Che

    And the others were called T. Ruth, L. I. Berty and R. O’Law…

  • Dystopia

    From the Daily Mirror today ( an interview with Mano Ganeshan, Convener of the Civil Monitoring Committee on Extra Judicial Killings:

    The government has a responsibility to look into these abductions

    Q: You say you have reports of 100 disappearances in Colombo alone.

    A: I received 64 complaints yesterday alone. They are from Colombo and some from Batticaloa as well. These are credible documented cases of disappearance. There is another 20 for which I had information before this.

    So I am collecting all the information with this regard and the number is roughly about 100. We already have about 12 deaths in Colombo. All this is within the last 12 months. There have been 16 cases where people have been taken in and released after a ransom has been paid.

    Q: And you are pointing the finger directly at the government. What evidence do you have?

    A: Yes. Most of these incidents have occurred in the Colombo city. They happen between 11 am and 3 pm in broad day light. People are picked up from public places in the city by armed men who travel in white coloured vans.

    These persons walk in to these places call the people by their name, check the identity cards and confirm they are taking the right person and take them in casually. Colombo city is secured by many check points, which is good because you need that to secure the city from terrorism.

    But I’ve never come across any incident where any of these vehicles have been stopped at the check points and the abductors arrested and investigations done. None have been checked. Either the security personnel are not doing their job well or there is a tacit operation where there is understanding and approval for the abductees.

    So with all the evidence I ask how the government and the security forces that are very vigilant on the security situation in the city have this number of situations?

    Q: Then you are basing the allegations on the negligence of the persons manning the check points rather than a direct involvement?

    A: By sufficient evidence do you expect me to find the exact names of the abductees and their ID cards? We can’t get those, that’s something that the police can do. We have numbers of vehicles and descriptions of the people.

    This is not of one incident but of at least 75 incidents in Colombo alone that I have recorded. One vehicle or two can pass the check points without detection but how can many pass? Therefore there is something.

    I am not accusing the government authority, the security forces or the police. I am not going to that extent. I am saying that there is an influential section within the government and the security establishment which is part of these incidents.

    Q: Why?

    A: For various reasons. One is for political reasons second for money. Whenever the police or security forces suspect anyone of being a supporter, part or sympathizer of the LTTE, they just pick up these people. And then businessmen are also picked up from Sea Street etc for money. They are released after ransom has been paid.

    Q: By whom exactly? Do you have any suspicions?

    A: Yes of course. In one incident one businessman was abducted when he was traveling with his son and another employee at Flower Rd by armed men who were traveling in another white vehicle that had overtaken their vehicle.

    They were taken to Polonnaruwa. The high way connecting Colombo to the North Central province is highly secured. There are a lot of check points. Now, when they pass these points they are naturally stopped, but allowed to go after the abductees produce an ID card.

    They are taken to a camp manned by Tamil speaking people. Those who abduct them in Colombo and take them there are Sinhala speaking people. In the camp they negotiate the money with the families of the abducted people.

    So when the amount is finalized and the families hand over the monies at a particular place in Polonnaruwa they are released. This happened somewhere in Kadiraveli. But I am not saying point blankly that the government, the army or the police are abducting these people, or that the people in the camp are Karuna, or EPDP or the LTTE.

    I don’t know. I’m saying that this is happening in government controlled areas in this country. The government has a responsibility to look in to this. This is only one incident.

    There are many others of this nature happening.We have an elected government. But when the elections are over, even if I am in the opposition this is my government. And a legitimate government can’t go as low as a terror group.

    Q: So are you saying that this government has gone down to that level?

    A: Yes, it has gone down to that level. Because this is not the first time we have seen such a low level of governance. We saw it in 1989 , 1990 era where the Deshapremi subversive group was active in the South. At that time Sinhala youth were spending time in the jungles because government terror agents were operating.

    Q: So are you saying the same thing is happening now?

    A: It’s happening now. And now it’s happening in broad day light and in the capital city.

    Q: Do you have any suspicions about the bodies found in Muthurajawela?

    A: I don’t know. The bodies have not been identified yet. But many people who have lost someone in their families came here when they heard about the bodies. These people are scared. There is the possibility that some of those abducted would be among the dead.

    Q: The government has promised an impartial inquiry. Do you believe such an inquiry will happen?

    A: Well, the government has been giving promises for a very long time. The Government promised at the UN sessions in New York that a complete Commission of Inquiry will be appointed and a local Commission with international observers with solid investigative powers.

    It was to comprise of MPs and representatives from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, European Union and Co-Chairs.

    But that never happened. Now we have the Mahanama Tilakaratne commission. But none of these have brought any results to the man on the street. The disappearances still continue.

    I represent the agony of those abducted. So on the point of view of the people these promises will be another promise. That’s all. We have no reason to trust them.

    Q: But the government says that some of these are LTTE informants or those with links with the LTTE that are arrested.

    A: This is what the government says.

    Q: So you don’t agree that they have links with the LTTE?

    A: I don’t say that. I don’t know. Maybe, or maybe not. That is for the police or the CID to investigate.

    Q: And you maintain that there are no investigations at all?

    A: Not at all. My point is that when the police or the security forces suspect a person to be a sympathizer of the LTTE, it has to be proved in a Court of Law after a thorough investigation. But before that you can’t say someone is a member of a terrorist organization or a sympathizer or has gone against the law. Until that he is innocent.

    This is why I say that it should be the behavior of a civilized, elected government. A terrorist group can do otherwise, pick up someone and kill him. But a government can’t go to that level. There is a fundamental difference between an abduction and an arrest.

    In an abduction, people go in civil clothing and take them to unknown places, but in an arrest authorized people go to a place, inform them the people of the purpose of arrest and where they will be taken and family members are given the opportunity to visit them. But this government doesn’t seem to understand the difference for some peculiar reason.

    Q: You have the support of Ministers like Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera. Are they not able to exert any pressure within?

    A: They stood with us on certain platforms like the Anti War Front, but not exactly on the human rights issue. I expect the Ministers who are concerned on these issues and with an anti war mentality will carry out an internal struggle.

    Q: Do you have the support of Members within the government for this?

    A: Of course. I didn’t accuse the government in totality. Mangala Samaraweera who was until recently the Foreign Minister said that there was an abduction every five hours.

    This is not something that I am saying alone, but from those within the government as well. The internal conflict within the government has shed light to some wrong doing within.

    Q: What are the safeguards you are looking for the Tamil people in Colombo in this scenario?

    A: We have the SLMM with a mandate to monitor the Ceasefire agreement. It doesn’t cover the human rights violations.

    We need to have a monitoring mission with international participation so that we can monitor the incidents. They can then liaise with the police.

    Q: The ACTA has also yesterday demanded UN intervention. Is what you are also asking along the same lines and has the situation gone so bad that there has to be foreign intervention?

    A: I don’t know if the TNA is in agreement with that ACTC proposal. It hasn’t been discussed with other fellow MPs or political party leaders. We have come to a level where we need more international participation. I won’t call that UN intervention or anything. I don’t subscribe to the theory that we can solve all problems ourselves. International assistance has to come in a more meaningful way.

    I am prepared to any discussion on war, peace or power sharing but there can’t be any discussion on human rights. These are fundamental civic rights and its violation can’t be tolerated.

    Q: As someone who’s concerned for Tamil rights, what is your position with regard to the way Tamil civilians were held under the LTTE in Vakarai or Sampur?

    A: What do you want to know about it?

    Q:Well, you are concerned with the plight of the Tamil people and according to the government they had to go and liberate the Tamil people from the LTTE in those areas. How would you weigh that plight as opposed to that of that of Colombo?

    A: We can’t take it as an issue for the East or North but as the overall ethnic issue in the country. We can only find a solution by sharing power through a political solution.

    But there is no proposal by the government. They are on a war path. They have distanced themselves from the Expert Committee proposal itself.

    Q: That wasn’t my question. I asked how you’d weigh the plight of the Tamil people under the LTTE as opposed to that in Colombo?

    A: I don’t know. We don’t have any information about what happens under LTTE territory. All we get is government information.

    Q: Karuna who has defected from LTTE speaks about the plight under the LTTE.

    A: Who is Karuna? He lacks legitimacy. He was with the LTTE but 22 MPs say in one voice that they represent LTTE. So we have to go with them.

    Even elected MPs from the East don’t represent Karuna. Once that happens we can talk about it.

  • Wicky


    Came across this campaign today – don’t know who it is by, but there’s a white van in it ! 🙂