White van abductions and Sri Lanka's terror regime

May 23, 2009

"Soldiers, our race salutes you!" state the Sinhala-language slogans on huge placards plastered across Sri Lanka's countryside.

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, the widow of murdered Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, revealed this bizarre slogan in a statement read out by Lasantha's niece at the UNESCO World Press Freedom award ceremony in Doha on May 3.

Lasantha is the second journalist to be honored posthumously since the prize was created 12 years ago.

"Not 'the people', not 'the country', but the race", Sonali said, highlighting the true nature of Sri Lanka's war on the Tamil people.

Indeed, Sri Lanka is in a patriotic and militarist mood. In Colombo, the national flag (which features the Sinhala symbol of a lion) is being waved on top of three wheelers — the popular vehicle in South Asia.


Walking around the city is difficult as it is dominated by the large number of checkpoints and intense security measures.

The large majority of the media are busy telling a triumphant story of the Sri Lankan Army — whose soldiers are now undisputable heroes in Colombo and the island's Sinhala-dominated south.

There are other heroes, like the "Rajapaksa brothers" — President Mahinda Rajapaksa and defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka's government and military have been about to claim full victory in the war "within days" for months now.

It may not be accidental that in this macho, militarised atmosphere, this writer experienced sexual harassment on the streets of the sort missing from previous visits to this charming country.

However, a bigger problem on the streets is abductions.

Sri Lanka's notorious abductions are being conducted by Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers — always in a white van.


"I have no guarantee for my life", sobbed Lackshman (names changed), a Tamil university graduate in his late 20s. "They will finish me off if I do not listen to their words."

Lackshman had torture marks all over his body. He was lucky to be spared his life by his abductors, unlike many others who never returned home.

But he was warned to get out of Colombo "within days".

Lackshman left Jaffna, the largely Tamil capital of the island's Northern Province, out of fear in 2005. Many of his friends had been shot dead by unknown persons.

He's been working since in Colombo, in a shop affiliated with a Tamil political party.

In April 2008, police arrested him outside the shop.

"The police, who had come to arrest the boys in adjoining shop, arrested me too", Lackshman said. He was held without charge for two months then released by court order.

During the detention, he was severely assaulted by police. When released, they warned him: "You can't escape us. We know where you are working. We will be watching you."

Lackshman knew his ordeal was to be repeated when he received a letter from an anonymous group that read: "You're from Jaffna. Why did you come to Colombo? Get out of your place or you will be punished."

The group claimed to be "in charge of evicting traitors".

Lackshman received a second letter from the same group near the end of last year. This time, a deadline for his leaving Colombo was set to a specific day.

"One day in February, I came out of my place for dinner around 9pm. Some Special Task Forces personnel called me over. They pushed me into a vehicle and put a mask on my face."

He was transferred twice during the journey of more than 10 hours. On the second transfer, he was handed over to a group who spoke perfect Tamil.

He was severely tortured by electrical equipment, leaving burns all over his body.

"I appealing to them for one more chance to live. They said it's up to higher officials.

"Finally, they told me they would give me a chance."

The abductors dumped Lackshman on the outskirts of Colombo and told him to get out of Colombo within days or "be punished".

White van's 'freedom of movement'

During the journey, he said, none of the numerous checkpoints stopped his abductors' vehicle.

The "abduction squad", apparently comprised of security forces, police and Tamil paramilitary groups, might be the only ones who can enjoy freedom of movement in Colombo or elsewhere on the island.

Independent Tamil MP Mano Ganesan said: "That is what we call systematical abduction to eliminate Tamils. As you can see, checkpoints are everywhere.

"But I have never heard of any white van stopped or abductors arrested.

"Isn't it clear that the abductions are carried out with the connivance of the authorities?"

Ganesan has received non-stop threats from various groups. His friend, Jaffna MP Nadaraja Raviraj, was assassinated two months after the pair launched the Civil Monitoring Commission of Abduction in late 2006.

Lal Wikrematunga, chairperson of the respected Sunday Leader said: "There is general understanding as to who abductors are. That's why people are too scared to talk. That's why none of the cases has been solved.

"It is very visible. But if you give others any information about abductors, then you're under threat."

US-based Human Rights Watch said more than 1500 people went missing between 2005 and 2007, including more than 1000 in 2006 alone.

In its annual report of 2008, HRW highlighted 43 reported cases in Vavuniya in August alone, adding "many cases are not reported due to fear of reprisal".

The Civil Monitoring Commission of Abduction, a local rights body, estimates the numbers as far higher. It says more than 400 people have gone missing in Colombo since the Rajapaksa government came to power in November 2005.

However, more than 4000 have gone missing in the Tamil-dominated north and east of Sri Lanka during the same period. The missing are mainly Tamil.

Tamils targeted

Ganeshan said that as part of the peace process, between 2002 and 2005 the LTTE was allowed to open political offices in government-held areas. The aim was to transform the guerrilla rebel group, fighting for an independent Tamil state, into a political party.

These offices organised various open political events in the north and east. Such events, legal at the time, were filmed.

"We found that many people who participated in such programs have since been disappeared", Ganesan said.

Sure enough, Lackshman revealed he took part in an LTTE-organised event in late 2002. He travelled with 50 others to cross the Muhamalai check point to go to Vanni, then the LTTE-controlled heartland in the north.

At the checkpoint, the SLA stopped them to take photographs and film them before allowing them to go on.

As violence spread from 2005 on, the LTTE political offices were closed down, and civilians who took part in any of its programs largely remained in government-held areas.

Some moved to Colombo to avoid violence. Yet Colombo is not a "safety zone" either for Tamils.

Although intimidation by the state is a threat to the whole population, it is conducted in the most direct and humiliating way against Tamils.

Under the pretext of supposed LTTE infiltration, the government introduced a measure forcing all Tamils in Colombo, whether they have lived there for decades or were visiting for a few days, to register at a police station.

They must provide personal details, including bank accounts.

It is believed that the abduction squad obtains this information, including knowing where their targets originally came from — as Lackshman's letter indicated.

It is also believed the squad has used such information to abduct Tamil businesspeople for ransom.

A Tamil woman, weeping in a dark room in the outskirts of Colombo while breast-feeding her two-year-old girl whose father is missing, said: "I'm very scared when security forces came into my house for search. I don't understand Sinhalese.

"I have three daughters. My husband has been missing since January 10, 2007. He was taken by CID officers nearby my house according to my neighbours."

Military solution to a political problem

From the government-declared "safety zone", to the barbed wired-detention camps, from the isolated Jaffna peninsula and paramilitary-dominated Eastern Province to Colombo, nowhere is safe for the Tamil minority on this island.

As the case of 25-year-old Tamil man Sampanthan (name changed) shows, people have just disappeared without a trace.

Sampanthan was arrested by police in Colombo in early 2008. He was preparing to go to Malaysia for work.

But he didn't have his passport with him when questioned by police, who suspected him of involvement with the LTTE. He was held for three months without charge.

He was released by court order when his family had submitted all relevant documents, including his passport.

But police didn't return his passport when he was released.

Sampanthan's brother Eehai (name changed) said: "My brother went to the police station twice to ask his passport back, but failed.

"On May 10, 2008, minutes after I spoke to him on the phone, witnesses said he was taken into a white van by three people in civil clothes who introduced themselves as CID officers."

The following day, CID men took all of his brother's documents from his home.

Asked if he ever tried to approach a CID office about his brother, Eehai exclaimed: "You know I am a Tamil youth. How can I?"

As the government ruthlessly crushes the Tamil Tigers, who had been appealing for a ceasefire, Tamils in Colombo are uneasy, feeling they will be more marganalised than ever.

One Tamil activist in Colombo observed: "What a defeat of the LTTE in this circumstance means is that a political solution, which is fundamentally needed to solve the conflict, will be further away.

A Sinhalese activist in Colombo pointed out: "The LTTE is about 30 years old. The roots of the conflict go back 60 years. We need to address roots and causes. Yet a military solution is being attempted to solve a political problem."

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