IRIN has recently highlighted the fact that “thousands of people are still missing” in Sri Lanka and presented an UNOHCR report that states that there are “5,671 reported cases of wartime-related disappearance in Sri Lanka” – even without taking note of the numbers that went missing in the final stages of the war in 2008/09.[i] In effect the statement implies that the figure for the DISAPPEARED could even spill over the five figure mark of 10,000.


Presented at this stage of a propaganda war involving a combination of Tamil activists and Rajapaksa-haters vociferously accusing the government of genocide and extra-judicial killings the implication of such single-track news items are several. They imply, or can be read to imply, that the government is responsible for MOST of the disappearances. This was the implication when news agencies eagerly pounced on Saroja Devi’s allegation that her son had disappeared[ii] after he was one of those ex-Tigers’ released following a government tamasha (a claim she was good enough to retract when the Commissioner of Rehabilitation showed her a video of the event which corrected her (mis)-reading of a newsprint image).[iii]

In educated surmise there is little doubt that shadowy government agencies and/or Tamil paramilitary allies of the government and/or outsourced criminal gangs have been the instruments who indulged in a dirty war in 2006-09 which eradicated a number of Tamils and a few journalists who were deemed “subversives;” while in the past year there have been another clutch of allegations regarding such activity that seem to have substance.[iv] The “white van” phenomenon marking extra-judicial killings or abductions for ransom is certainly a feature of Sri Lankan politics and society that is a serious concern.

The first question, then, is for those civil right activists who have kept track of this sphere ‘underground warfare’ to present an approximate figure of those political activists (as distinct from ransom victims and gangsters) eliminated by extra-judicial action of the white van type or through outright assassination between 2006 and 2012.[v] Such a statistic is relevant as we ponder the IRIN news item.

We also know that when reporters and NGO personnel retail such items on the large numbers of “disappeared,” they garner for themselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the badge of “good guys” pursuing an ethical cause. Working as a gadfly against this grain, what I wish to emphasise is the character of war in general and the specifics of the Eelam Wars which have not been placed on the board as one facet of this topic. In other words I am asking “what is missing in this figure of those missing?” What aspects of the total context have been elided out because of a single track approach which carries sensationalist dimensions?

I wonder at times whether city-bred reporters and intellectuals have any awareness, however vicarious, of the character of fighting on land and whether their cloistered circumstances perpetuate tunnel-vision. The fact is that any extended period of warfare, especially in jungle tropical terrain, results in a substantial number of soldiers disappearing — that is, they become a part of that sombre anonymous statistic “missing in action.”

The number of Sri Lankan Army soldiers missing in action during Eelam Wars II and III would be substantial; and perhaps so embarrassing that one may find it difficult to extract figures from official sources.[vi] This figure would be less in Eelam War IV because the SL Army was mostly on the offensive. The LTTE would not have been immune from this process, especially during Eelam War IV so that some of the IRIN figures would encompass Tiger personnel who are missing in action.

The IRIN figures above can be supplemented by those collected by the Department of Statistics in mid-2011 with the help of Tamil officials in the northern districts.[vii] They computed that

  • “6350 people went missing” in 2009.
  • “6858 people were killed in the first five months of 2009.”

These statistics are barebones without adequate amplification and do not indicate whether Tiger personnel were included within their ambit. The fact remains that many Tigers, especially new conscripts, were not wearing fatigues. It would not have, therefore, been feasible for those giving testimony to distinguish in all instances which corpse was Tiger and which not. That note applies only to corpses that were found and buried.

The caveat in the last line is essential because one must allow for the considerable number of Tigers and civilians who died in the scrub jungle as a result of enemy fire or snake bite and whose bodies were left behind in the course of the retreat that took place between mid-2008 to May 2009. In short, a certain proportion of the “missing” have just returned to the soil so to speak, or become part of the nutrients servicing monitor lizards, jackals and termites.[viii] War is raw and our vocabulary must be raw.

One of the few commentators to face this awful scenario full frontal has been Rajasingham Narendran. In a blog comment arising from one of my essays directed at Rohan Gunaratna, he observed

in the Vanni in the period around April’ 2009, when the summer is at its hottest, bodies would have decomposed faster. the older and the obese bodies would have deteriorated faster than those of the younger and thinner ones. Being largely an area that is in proximity to jungles and teaming with wild animals of all sorts, most of the dead would have been partially or totally consumed by wild animals. Flies and maggots would have accelerated the decay.(dated 24 Nov 2011).

When one Siva Sankaran confidently asserted that the army “meticulously” enumerated bodies, Narendran replied thus:

From all accounts, it was impossible to differentiate between combatants, civilian conscripts and ordinary civilians. The combatants were also in civilian clothes. Further, a proportion of the dead where possible and when safe, were buried in shallow graves by those known to them. Some died in bunkers and were probably covered over. There were children who died after a prolonged stay in bunkers. They had been hidden to escape conscription. Everyone, including the soldiers, [was] amidst unbelievable confusion. No one knew what was going to happen next. It is thus unrealistic to expect that the priority was to count the dead and categorize them. It was largely each one for himself in a desperate situation.

Apart from the Tamils who died and disappeared in this manner, either in action or during the course of the mass retreat through scrub jungle, we must also take account of the Tamils whom the LTTE killed. This statistic would include (a) those shot as they tried to break free from the hostage situation they had been placed in;[ix] as well as (b) the Tamil dissidents and prisoners whom the LTTE executed as they became a burden on their resources.

The UTHR has indicated that 140 prisoners (mostly Tamil) were killed on Pottu Amman’s orders on 8th February 2009,[x] but we will never know how many Tamil civilians (and even fighters) were killed by the Tigers as they tried to ‘abandon ship’.[xi] It is likely that the figure exceeds one thousand, but that is a guestimate.

As it is, we know now that a significant number of the 286,000 or so Tamils placed in detention centres in Menik Farm and elsewhere in April-May 2009 slipped out of the camps. Darshan Ambalavanar informed me that it was possible to buy to one’s way out and that the process had the characteristic of “package tours” – so much to get to Colombo, so much to get to India etc.[xii] Grapevine information suggests that a couple of Ministers were part of this racket.

Among those who took this route was the Tamil professional who surfaced as Muthu Kumaran in Australia,[xiii] almost certainly the expat LTTE functionary and engineer we know as Arunachalam Jegapheeswaran  alias Jegan Waran.[xiv] For our interests here what matters is the number who got away from the detention centres in various ways. Gross estimates vary from 2,000 to 10,000.[xv] The attendant question then is: how many of these people, now abroad for the most part, have been counted among the disappeared? The question is rhetorical. We will never know.

Such numbers and the murky picture relating to many central questions provide a contextual perspective of relativity on the numbers who have gone missing because of extra-judicial killings by outfits linked to the government. Such statistical proportionality, of course, does not serve as a justification for the killings and abductions.

In sum, then, anyone who concentrates on the DISAPPEARED as an item of news or advocacy must elucidate the context and bring the many paths of disappearance into the purview of readers. Advocacy and news must be as rounded as grounded, that is, grounded rounded. If not, it is incomplete and partisan biased, even if unintentionally so.



Jeyaraj, DBS 2007 “An Overview of the “Enforced Disappearances” Phenomenon,”

Sunday Leader 2012 “Disappearances in Massive Scale during 2006–2009,”

GV-HRW List 2012 [Disappearances …],

US Department of State 2009 Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka.

Watchdog 2012a “New wave of abductions and dead bodies in Sri Lanka,” 26 Feb, 2012,

Watchdog 2012b “Horrible rise of disappearances in post-war Sri Lanka continues unabated,” 5 Apr, 2012,

Weliamuna, JC 2012Discovering the White Van in a Troubled Democracy: An analysis of ongoing “abduction blueprint” in Sri Lanka,” 28 April 2012,




[iv] AND AND

[v] Partial figures are available in the citations in fn. 4 above and in the following: Jeyaraj 2007 at and GV-HRW at

[vi] My preliminary stab through Google and within the Ministry of Defence web site produced no findings, but that maybe due to my own shortcomings in cyber trawling.

[vii] AND

[viii] AND

[ix] That this occurred on several occasions has been noted by several sources that are hostile towards the SL government –for e.g the UTHR Report No.34; Gordon Weiss in The Cage.

[xi] For illustrations, see US Department of State, 2009, 16 & 18 April 2009.

[xii] Ambalavanar was not in Lanka in 2 mid 2009 but became involved in welfare activity from a base in Batticaloa towards the end of the year and got to know a great deal about circumstances in the north during his work-visits to the area. We met in late 2009.



[xv] See Serge de Silva Ranasinghe’s interviews with T. Sridharan, D. Siddharthan and Fr Rohan Silva — AND AND

  • Andrew Kendle

    Dear Michael,

    Both you and the IRIN journalist have set up a straw man to make different points about the end of the war using figures that were there in the public record before President Rajapakse even came to power in December 2005. (NB — See page page 69 of the following Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) report from December 2004:

    The figure of 5671 cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances still unaccounted for is far from a new figure, and the UN’s numbers for Sri Lanka have been more or less the same for several years now. WGEID has been working for decades on the data submitted to it about Sri Lanka and elsewhere and the numbers change as the status of the cases that it has accepted to review change based on new and past information. (NB — The total number of cases WGEID has accepted for determination for Sri Lanka number over 12,000.) It’s not the job of WGEID to determine the overall figures from the last period of the war in Sri Lanka. It only looks at individual cases from Sri Lanka or elsewhere as and when they come in.

    As you will see if you read pages 147 and 148 of the WGEID report from March this year, only Iraq’s record is worse than Sri Lanka’s. All Sri Lankan government’s since the early 1980s (and to a lesser extent earlier), as well as the Tamil Tigers and the JVP (during its insurrections) have credible charges against them that members of the state security forces,cadres of the LTTE, and members of the JVP, all committed horrendous crimes. All of these allegations, need to be investigated so that slowly but surely the families of the disappeared can have some sort of idea about what happened to their loved ones.

    What exactly happened during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka is a partisan mine-field at the moment, as you rightly point out. However, confusing what the WGEID actually does, as you and the IRIN reporter have done, wittingly or unwittingly, adds no clarity to that debate.

    Yours Sincerely

    Andrew Kendle

    • This is useful Andrew Kendle. Thank you for clarifying matters. As indicated I was spurred by the IRIN report. I did send email to two media friends seeking more data and also made a hurried google search; but this is the first I have heard of WGEID and it is informative to know more. Alas your web reference is a citadel that has turned down my attempts from both Uni and home with the note “There is an end-user problem. If you have reached this site from a web link,
      – Through your internet options, adjust your privacy settings to allow cookies or
      – Check your security settings and make sure this site has not been blocked or
      – You are probably using a very slow link that may not work well with this application.
      Otherwise you have reached this site through unauthorized means.”
      I am sure others would like access to your site and perhaps you can send a note to GV and evens end a summary report as an item to GVso that they can post it.
      PS: if your agency is chasing all disappearances from the 1980s I wish you the best of Almighty GOD’s luck!!

  • T. Aruna

    It seems to me that what is missing from this discourse are actually the names and identities of the missing. The preoccupation with contested aggregate figures distracts from and obscures the specific details of each case – whether the person who is missing is an unarmed civilian, a conscript, a militant or a member of the military. Those who search for the missing do know the names of their loved ones and relatives who are still unaccounted for, and usually have considerable information about the circumstances in which they went missing. They have often also expended considerable effort to chase down leads that might shed light on the fate of those who are missing.

    No single truth will account for how people were taken/lost, whether they are alive or dead, where they are held or buried, or indeed who was responsible. The details vary from from case to case, from location to location, and across the timespan of the conflict. It is close to the ground that the realities of the losses, both in terms of their causes, circumstances and consequences, can be best apprehended. It’s worth keeping in mind that the search for truths has already been undertaken by hundreds, if not thousands, of families – using the resources at their disposal. It is imperative that we find ways of assisting them in their search, or Of creating the means by which those with information relevant to the specific cases are able to share this with those most entitled to have it.

    Surely this should be where attention and effort should be directed.

  • alex fernando

    What is really missing is the will to stop people from going missing. Simple steps to stop the culture of impunity have been blocked despite the end of the conflict (but rather a continuation of oppression of Tamils by the state’s huge military apparatus). Further, the ‘anti-terror’ laws which protect this culture of impunity remain in place. Aside from the fact that 147,000 odd people remain unaccounted for in the district, which the author has chosen to ignore. An interesting defense of the regime though.

  • Where the whole missing/disappearance issue is concern what one must understand is that when one decide to conceal the existence of a person they really do little to hurt the that particular person but they do a lot of damage to the next of kin who has done nothing wrong. Also we must understand that a family who has a person unaccounted for will never be the same they will never contribute to the development of the world society as they did before the incident, so for those who has an economic lens also should take this gravest crime seriously and collectively we all have to work to put an end to this gravest crime on earth

  • James Chance

    Really, Dr. Roberts. You are a scholar, known for your careful research and detailed historical and anthropological arguments. Why do you think the standards should be different when writing for Groundviews? Hurried web searches and a few emails/ calls to journalist friends aren’t enough. Your anti-rights activist hobby horse has gotten the better of you again. To write an article like this without first learning where the numbers used came from and what WGEID is and does is irresponsible. The IRIN story itself wasn’t great either, but what you both need to do is distinguIsh between different forms of disappearances. WGEID deals with “enforced” disappearances, ie abductions and murders where the missing person is never found. You know very well that Sri Lanka has suffered various waves of Politically-motivated disappearances – and in fact has had at least six separate presidential commissions to investigate them. Those appointed by Chandrika that looked into disappearances from the late 1980’s found at least 20,000 such cases. There was a resurgence of enforced disappearances starting in 2006 with the Rajapaksas return to nasty counter-insurgency. Right activists I know estimate at least a couple of thousand eliminated this way, esp in 2007-8. Then there is a a very different issue of those missing in action – traditionally soldiers, but as you rightly point out, many civilians too in the final months of war and forced displacement. What further confuses things is that hundreds of LTTE leaders and associates were taken away at the end of the war and have not been seen or accounted for. Their families have testified to this fact and are agitating for the government to explain what happened to them. They are a distinct sub-category of the disappeared, and must be distinguished from those others who are missing, but let’s hope still living, who surrendered at the end of the war and were taken away, perhaps to “rehabilitation” camps. The government’s continued refusal to release the names of those they still hold is a scandal, and suggests they don’t want people to know just how many are no longer alive.

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