Groundviews

Involuntary Disappearances – The North South Divide

Featured image courtesy oneworld.org

Sure, I heard

Someone tap on the wooden door

At the rear of our house.

Sure, I heard

Some one call your name.

Ruben he called you,

One night, last year.

 

I kept calling you since,

“Ruben!”, I wept all this time.

Officers said, they never heard me,

Gods above never said,

They’ve seen you since.

 

From the neighbouring village,

A limping boy thinks, he remembers you,

Hung, while you were asleep.

Yet, I searched for you to whisper,

A secret into your “sleeping” self.

 

Thought I’d send it as a message,

Not to come back home.

But who’d carry my message?

“Madibha” went finally,

On people’s shoulders.

 

Sure, I heard

Some one call your name,

Ruben he called you.

– Kusal Perera

December 15, 2013

[A rough translation of a Sinhala poem “Sure I heard…”

Written after December 10 International Human Rights Day and after Nelson Mandela’s demise.]

 Disappearances, involuntary disappearances, are part of State terror in combating opposition a government cannot cope with. Despite democratic traditions and social structures, involuntary disappearances occurred, and continue to occur, in Sri Lanka. In post war Sri Lanka, the State security apparatus is solely held responsible for abductions and disappearances while during the war, the LTTE was also held responsible for crimes including disappearances.

The first experiences of such involuntary disappearances came with the 1971 JVP insurrection. During this time, incidents of involuntary disappearances were extremely rare and the Southern Sri Lankan society was numb, not having known of such State terror any time before. Caught in the first armed revolt against the State since the struggle for independence from colonial rule, the Sinhala society was mute for many reasons. First, the JVP armed insurrection was launched against a popular government voted to power a year before. Next was the fact that society was taken by surprise and had no political affiliation with the JVP rebels. The disconnect between the rebels and society, left people more in sympathy with the government they voted into power and hoping for an improved life. Most importantly, the “Left” that always fought and agitated for workers’ and people’s demands were not politically inclined to raise civil liberties and human rights violations. Worse, they were part of the government and theoretically argued they had to defend it and the State.

The lacuna in defending human rights was thus filled by a small elite group in Colombo that formed the first human rights organisation in post independent Sri Lanka as the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) led by Surya Wickramasinghe and Desmond Fernando. Along with radical “Left” trade unionist cum lawyer Bala Tampoe, they played a key role post ’71 JVP insurrection in defending human rights. Amnesty International (AI) became a supportive international agency for CRM activities. Yet, within Sri Lankan politics, human rights violations were not considered a serious issue. The ’71 insurrection came to be seen as an isolated, politically unacceptable, youthful adventure. Southern society accepted that the movement had to be crushed sooner rather than later. The second was the role of the mainstream “Left”. Until the early 1980s the “Left” played a conspicuous role in opinion making and for them crushing an armed insurrection waged against their coalition government was safeguarding democracy. The two together helped mould the social psyche in the Sinhala South.

Involuntary disappearances as a phenomenon of State terror therefore became an issue with Tamil political dissent that went into armed struggle in mid ’70s and became a potent force towards late ’80s after the Tamil pogrom in July ’83. Yet again, disappearances in the North and East were not seen as a violation of human rights by the majority of Southern social activists. With CRM still active in an elitist urban culture, the exception to this was a few politically alert pro “Left” groups and individuals who came together as MIRJE (Movement for Inter Racial Justice & Equality) in the late 1970s initiated by a radical Jesuit priest, Paul Caspersz. Unfortunately, being an urban middle class entity and behaving as such, they did not work towards a people’s movement and faded within a decade.

Yet, involuntary disappearances in North and East became a major issue over the years within a protracted brutal war on both sides of the barricade. In 1981 a group of concerned Jaffna citizens formed the first Citizens’ Committee to intervene in arrests and disappearances of youth in the peninsula. Then came the Jaffna Committee of the MIRJE. Perhaps the first major social protest was launched by the Jaffna “Mothers’ Front” in 1984, initial work for which was done by a former active “Leftist” Nirmala Sithampalam. With large scale arrests by State security forces,  the Mothers’ Front grew into a grassroots campaign that brought thousands of women onto the streets of Jaffna town to march into the Government Agent’s office and demand a halt to arbitrary arrests. Although these civil society interventions within Jaffna came to naught with the LTTE gaining control and closing down social space for independent citizens’ activities, there were monitoring and intervening social groups in the East, where the LTTE did not have total hegemony.

What thereafter gave due importance to involuntary disappearances in North and East was the growing Tamil Diaspora. Escalation of the war compelled more and more Tamil youth and families to leave Sri Lanka seeking safe refuge not only in Tamil Nadu but also in first world countries in the West. Their campaigns, demanding information about relatives who went missing after arrest by State security forces paved the way for an organised international campaign against arbitrary arrests and disappearances in North and East. The AI, the ICRC and other similar rights based international organisations and numerous formations within the Tamil Diaspora, came to be involved big time in these campaigns. Organisations like the AI in fact spent time and resources to launch campaigns with documented evidence of arbitrary arrests, abductions and disappearances. While most international campaigns were focussed on State violations, disappearances and abductions committed by the LTTE were not brought to the table. Atrocities committed by the LTTE was thus used by governments at war to justify military intervention in a political conflict. There was nevertheless an issue in comparing and listing a non-State armed outfit on equal terms with a legitimate, democratically elected government that has to act within law and respect human rights and civil liberties under any trying condition.

With the previous Rajapaksa government prevailed upon by international human rights organisations, UN agencies and Western power blocs to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity, a “Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons” was established in August, 2013. Its mandate was later expanded to cover issues beyond that of missing persons. Popularly called the “Paranagama Commission”, its final report that was tabled in parliament in October 2015 is an attempt to justify the final phase of the war, holding the LTTE as the sole violator of rights. The Commission accepts it received approximately 2,700 complaints on missing persons from mothers, wives and affected persons. Yet it has conveniently dropped its fundamental responsibility in giving out numbers and details of those missing persons according to age, gender, civil status and the State or non-State agency held responsible for the abduction and disappearance. Neither the MPs in parliament nor the Colombo based civil society actors defending human rights have raised these issues in relation to the Paranagama Commission Report that evades such query by saying it is on the “Second Mandate”. This lack of intensity in responding to investigations and reports, reflects the Southern mind on human rights violations including abductions and disappearances.

The North certainly is different to the South. At present, 07 years after the conclusion of the war, Tamil society would not allow involuntary disappearances and missing persons to be forgotten without a clear answer from the State. Since the conclusion of the war, numerous campaigns on behalf of the disappeared have come back to the Vanni, the Jaffna peninsula and the East. They have organised themselves into a network of affected families, agitating for the “missing”. There are leading personalities who continue to lead those agitations despite humiliations, repression and threats. Jeyakumari Balendran, mother of a missing youth epitomises the courage and determination of the Tamil society seeking a final answer from the government.

This social determination is absent in the Sinhala South. The first truly terrifying moments in the South came with the ruthless and inhuman crackdown by the State under President Premadasa, during the savage second JVP insurrection from 1988 to 1990. Former President Rajapaksa who was an opposition politician then, led the campaign against State terror and was perhaps the first human rights campaigner from the Sinhala South to get in touch with Amnesty International (AI). His campaign had its own deficiency. His campaign was not geared against human rights violations including involuntary disappearances, but was more a political campaign against the Premadasa regime in finding a platform for oppositional politics. The “Mothers’ Front” unconsciously borrowed from Jaffna after the abduction of Richard de Soyza and launched by him and present Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, also an oppositional MP then, did not grow as a social movement either. Nor was it intended to. The small core group of affected mothers who were brought together were led by political leaders from the opposition for their political advantage. Ironically, involuntary disappearances in the South, numbering 12,000 according to a UN survey in 1999 and counted as the second largest number in the world then, had no serious Southern civil society intervention either. With the JVP regrouping and finding a foothold in mainstream politics, disappearances in the South was a lost cause. Even the JVP did not take on the issue of their own disappeared comrades. To date, they have not even asked for any investigation into the deaths of their leaders, including Rohana Wijeweera, while under State custody.

Human rights violations in the South thus became the responsibility of international organisations like the AI and a few others that kept pressure on the Sri Lankan governments through their own lobbying in Geneva and in other international forums. The 2010 presidential and general elections provided some space for Colombo based non governmental organisations to be actively involved in campaigns to pass a UNHRC Resolution to probe war related crimes. The UNHRC would not have gone the distance it went in adopting the 2015 September OISL resolution if not for such international lobbying and pressure. With the ousting of Rajapaksa in January 2015 there is now a very conspicuous absence in campaigning for justice for the involuntarily disappeared and affected families in the South. The only prominent campaign against abduction and disappearance in the South that holds the State responsible and answerable is the Eknaligoda disappearance. That in fact is one case where Colombo based human rights activists and organisations were seen in action against the Rajapaksa regime. With the change of regime, it is very much the determination and courage of Eknaligoda’s wife Sandhya, that keeps the issue still in the public gaze. This is a Southern political situation similar to the Rajapaksa campaign in the early 90’s where rights violations were only used for regime change.

This leaves a marked difference in how the Sinhalese South faces and responds to human rights violations, compared to the North-East. The Sinhala society was no consistent campaigner on violation of Rights. Often it gave up on human rights violations, abductions and disappearances with a change of government. What makes the Sinhala constituency so forgetful of their own Sinhalese lives? This remains a painful question, for such short lived attachment and easily discarded memory of one’s own kith and kin, perhaps reflects a very backward culture that allows politicising of murder most foul and a ground for impunity to thrive. Impunity in fact grows on continued societal neglect of State crime. A callous neglect of social responsibility which the South adorns with pride. That no doubt needs drastic and significant change for a functional democratic society in Sri Lanka.

[Written on invitation for the AI’s 2016 Global Poetry Competition “Silenced Shadows”, to be carried along with Yolanda Foster’s introduction.]