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.