Dark days in paradise

By Dylan Welch, Sydney Morning Herald
June 30, 2007
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Kidnapping and murder are common in Sri Lanka as the teardrop isle slides towards anarchy, writes Dylan Welch.

Kamalajasi Ketheeswaran sits in a small, white air-conditioned office in the port area of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, cradling her 18-month-old daughter. Her other daughter, 7, sits beside her with four in-laws. Despite the family support, as she describes the abduction of her husband four months ago the seemingly stoic woman suddenly dissolves into tears.

"We married for love, and now only I am here. Every day I long for his return, thinking that he will come," she says. A Sri Lankan Tamil, Ketheeswaran, 30, is unable to contain her emotion when considering life without the family's sole breadwinner. "How long must I be in this situation? For how long can his brothers look after me?"

The nightmare of not knowing the fate of her husband has become a seemingly unresolvable injustice. It is so for the families of thousands of other recent abductees.

On January 10 Ketheeswaran's husband, Sujambu Nadar, 31, and his brother, Sujambu Nadar Kanapathy, 27, were running their private bus service in the suburbs of Colombo. During a stop they were approached by men dressed in civilian clothes who claimed they were from the Sri Lankan police.

They were asked by the men to get into a white van - such vehicles have become one of the most powerful symbols of abductions in Sri Lanka - and were whisked away. Five months later, even though the family reported their disappearance to the police, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, the Red Cross and many national politicians, they have heard nothing about the fate of the two men.

They simply vanished amid a pattern of spiralling lawlessness that has been rocking Sri Lanka.

The lexicon of international law refers to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In a simpler language, abductions and assassinations, kidnappings and murder. One is often followed by the other.

As the 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire in the 25-year war between the Government and rebel group the Tamil Tigers is near collapse, it seems a culture of impunity regarding abduction and murder is again rising.

"This issue, abductions, disappearances, started increasing again from the beginning of last year," says Mano Ganesan, a Tamil member of Parliament, and one of the conveners of the Civil Monitoring Commission, formed early last year to monitor the rise in abductions and murders - he says primarily of Tamils.

Since then the commission has recorded a steady stream of abductions - 103 cases up to the end of April. According to other monitoring groups that number is barely the tip of the iceberg, with thousands of disappearances and murders going unreported in battleground areas such as Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the east, and Jaffna in the north.

One of the oldest human rights organisations in Colombo, Home for Human Rights, which has recorded human rights violations in Sri Lanka since 1977, says even the quantifiable numbers are much higher. In the first four months of this year alone it recorded 270 disappearances and murders. Last year, it says, there were just under 1000.

Even the work of the monitoring organisations is not without risk. In November the co-convener of the commission with Ganesan, fellow Tamil politician Nadaraja Raviraj, was shot dead while driving on a busy road in a safe part of Colombo in the middle of the day.

Fearing for his life, Ganesan fled to India, and returned only when the Government provided him with security. The irony of being guarded by officers from the very Government he accuses of murdering Raviraj is not lost on him.

Asked how he feels about his security cocoon - at least six guards, dressed in subdued colours with bulges at the hip, all wearing sunglasses - he smiles. "Even if I distrust them what can I do? I can't tell them to go away."

And while he confesses to carrying a handgun, he's not concerned. "I'm always optimistic," he says, smiling. But the smile quickly disappears. "And it's not going to be easy to assassinate me, or kill me, or take me away. If anybody tries, it will be a tough job for them."

The impunity with which Raviraj's killing was carried out is symptomatic of a dark side of Sri Lanka, where rebel and paramilitary groups kill who they want when they want. Many, such as Ganesan, allege the involvement of the police and military.

After the late 1980s, when the government crushed a Marxist uprising at a cost of at least 30,000 lives, successive governments promised to never return to those dark days. But now an increasingly cowed society is whispering of a return to the culture of impunity.

One senior public servant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said abduction and secret murder have become institutionalised in Sri Lanka. "We have security forces and police who have done this thing before. They are quite used to that technique. They think it's an easy way. They've improved on it now, they have perfected it - they killed by the thousands and got away with it [in the late 1980s]. And they learnt from their mistakes - now you find bodies without heads or hands [to prevent identification]."

While the number of murders is nowhere near those of the late 1980s, he says the situation is beginning to resemble the bad old days. "Democratic institutions are being stifled, human rights are being violated and abandoned, and the value to life is low - anybody can disappear or get killed any time. You may find bodies lying here or there. There'll be only a mention that a body was found, and that is all, the investigation won't go beyond that."

The public servant attributes the current wave of disappearances and murders to an impersonal "they" and says it doesn't matter who is responsible - what matters is that "they" are willing and able to kill. "Everybody is free to dispose of anybody whom they want. And they are sure they are not getting caught."

In some cases, there is an almost absurd collusion from both sides. Take the case of a Tamil Hindu priest in the east. According to a report by the international organisation Human Rights Watch, in early February in the town of Varahai, shortly after Government forces had captured the area, soldiers arrived at the home of the priest, Salliah Parameswar, and demanded he go with them.

"They took him to a victory ceremony … where the priest was instructed to garland President Mahinda Rajapakse as a sign that Tamils in the area welcomed what the Government called their 'liberation'. The event was widely publicised in the media. Five days later, unknown gunmen came to the priest's house, took him from his family, and shot him dead."

One of the worst affected groups are Tamil journalists, who face extreme risks when their reportage is critical of either side. The editor of the Jaffna-based Tamil newspaper Uthayan, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, recently described to Agence France Presse the kind of threats his staff and he face. "We have lost five staff in the last 18 months," he said. "I have had grenades tossed into my room, but I am ready for anything."

While most accept that some abductions are attributable to the Tigers, Tamil politicians accuse the Government of involvement via the military and paramilitaries.

"The [Tamil Tigers are] basically considered a guerilla, terrorist organisation … and we have a Government here in Colombo, a legitimate, democratically elected Government that represents [Sri Lanka] to the international community, doing the same thing."

For its part the Government says the number of abductions is vastly exaggerated, and accuses its enemies of trying to manufacture a rise in abductions to embarrass it. In an interview on the Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera recently, President Rajapakse said some of the alleged abductees were simply overseas.

Under pressure from within Sri Lanka and from the diplomatic community, last year the Government set up a commission of inquiry to examine 16 of the more serious allegations of murder and abduction.

The commission has been hampered, however, by the lack of witnesses. Only 12 have come forward, with the fear of being murdered or abducted themselves keeping most away. As the August deadline for its report looms, many question whether it will be able to provide anything close to a comprehensive report on even the few cases it is examining.

And as the numbers of human rights violations in Sri Lanka rise, the international community is finding itself forced to act. Britain halted debt relief to Sri Lanka in May, in anger at the Government's human rights record, and major donor Japan is reviewing its position. Germany stopped its aid in December.

The US is also expressing concerns. During a visit to Sri Lanka in early May the US diplomat Richard Boucher criticised the Government for the prevailing climate of fear. "I feel a lot people are afraid," he said. "We have seen people killed; there are very serious threats, lots of people are very worried about their lives. More needs to be done to create a climate where people feel safe."

Australia has also recently joined in the condemnation. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, criticised both sides in a press release in late May. Australia was, he said, concerned by "the growing environment of impunity surrounding human rights violations in Sri Lanka".

But all of this international politicking means very little to the families; what matters is the return of their relatives. After the interview with the Herald, Ketheeswaran and her family slowly file out of the small, humid office. They gather several small plastic bags holding shopping and clothes, and walk out into the oppressive heat of the Colombo afternoon.

Later, Ganesan suggests there is not much hope for the Ketheeswarans, or for any of the other families of those who have disappeared, though he says he does not tell them this. "All the political kidnappings end up in death, there is no question."