Truth seeking

The Struggle for Justice

First published at on 20th October 2018

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a speech made at the Human Rights Education Award ceremony at the Law & Human Rights Centre in Jaffna, on 19th Oct. 2018

Dear friends,

I want to congratulate the Law and Human Rights Centre for organising this course. It is difficult but very important to do this in Jaffna, a place that sees continuing rights violations, impunity for serious violations in the past and courageous dissent and resistance, be it through protests, the arts, writing, or filing court cases.

Rights violations and struggles for justice

Today, after this event, I will be going to the Jaffna Press Club – for a commemorative event to remember life and work of Nimalarajan, a Tamil journalist killed on 19th October 2000. He is among many Tamil journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated during and after the war. No one has been held accountable. For many, justice for Tamil journalists appear to be less important than justice for Sinhalese journalists. Even now, Tamil journalists continue to face threats, intimidation, surveillance, interrogation. Not just them, but also families and friends.

This year and last year has been a year of protests in Sri Lanka – especially in the North and East. This includes continuous protests for more than one and half years by families of disappeared and by communities whose lands are occupied by the military. In addition to long drawn out roadside protests, families of the disappeared in Mannar and Vavuniya have published books documenting their stories. Some have met the President, others have made representations to international community representatives in Sri Lanka and Geneva. Some have filed court cases. Some of the leaders have been assaulted, threatened, intimidated and subjected to interrogation and surveillance. Even those inside prisons have been protesting – such as female detainees and political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes.

There have been a few significant victories emerging from these struggles. For example, last year, month long overnight roadside protests by communities in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu led to the release of Army and Air Force-occupied lands. This year, the people of Iranaitheevu made a daring landing on their Navy-occupied island and reclaimed their traditional lands. Hunger strikes by political prisoners have led to reversal of unjust transfer of cases from Tamil areas to Sinhalese areas, and release on bail of some. Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband disappeared, was threatened by a rough Buddhist Monk Gnanasara while inside court in 2016 – she refused mediation, insisted and courageously pursed justice in courts and finally, Gnanasara was convicted and put behind bars. These are exceptions to the rule, but it’s good to recall these struggles, and see what we can learn from those that were leading and involved in these.

We also need to be conscious of rights abuses, injustice and repression from non-state parties. Last month, a film looking at Tamil militancy, including the LTTE, in a critical way, was removed from the Jaffna film festival due to pressure from some people in Jaffna. Earlier this week, a photo exhibition, a substantial part of which included photos about rights violations in the North and East including disappearances and land, was not allowed to be held in the Peradeniya University by a student group. Last year, several months long protest was held against caste based oppression in Jaffna.

Protests have been held across the North and East against unjust schemes by microfinancecompanies that pushes people into debt and even suicide. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo preached that human rights are not so important, that it’s a Western concept, that it’s only for people without religions, despite strong views supporting international human rights framework by successive Popes including Pope Francis. Most Muslim men and clergy resist reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which legalises blatant discrimination of women and child marriage of girls. Some Buddhist clergy and their followers have been at forefront of violence against Christians and Muslims. Even as we try hold the state accountable, we must also expose and challenge armed groups, business enterprises, religious groups and in general oppressive social – cultural practices that facilitates, justifies and promotes rights abuses and undermines struggles for justice.

It is also a challenge to critically engage with new laws and institutions that we are faced with. These often fall short of legitimate expectations of survivors, victim families and affected communities. They are often compromised, or seek to whitewash old and existing violations and paint a rosy picture of the present situation. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) established earlier this year and the Act on Reparations approved in Parliament last month are examples. But they also offer tiny rays of hope for a minimal degree of redress to at least a few survivors, victim families and affected communities and thus, we should be careful about rejecting them totally or boycotting them. The Right to Information Act and the Commission is an example of a recent development that have provided answers to some citizens who proactively sought answers about what’s hidden – such as military occupied land and military run businesses, entitlements in terms of flood relief etc.

I want to spend some time to talk about another draft law that’s before parliament now. The Counter Terrorism Bill. We must all stand for immediate and long overdue repeal of the PTA – the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But we must resist the temptation to compare the Counter Terrorism Act with the draconian PTA, and instead, focus on looking at extremely problematic clauses of the CTA which have the potential to restrict our rights and takes away essential lifesaving checks and balances in face of arrest and detention. It is not even compulsory to have a female officer question a female. It is not compulsory to serve acknowledgement of arrest and detention to family of the detainee. The draft restricts roles of the judiciary and confers extraordinary powers to the police, military, the Minister and the President. But we must also ask the more fundamental question of why we need a CTA, especially when we have a Public Security Ordinance, which gives enormous discretionary powers to the President to declare emergency regulations? Why do we need a CTA when our constitution allows restrictions on fundamental rights in special circumstances including for national security? When we have around 15 other laws, including those dealing with terrorism, hate speech that may cause communal disharmony, and money laundering? Laws such as the PTA, have served as license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and prolonged periods of detention, torture and sexual violence, and crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. This is true for Sri Lanka and across the world. In Sri Lanka, it is Tamils who have been disproportionately affected by PTA and it is crucial that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major political alliance representing Tamils in parliament, and also the opposition party, stands for the full repeal of the PTA, highlights the problematic clauses of the new counter terror law and oppose it’s enactment. And I believe all of us, especially Tamils in the North and East, must demand this from the TNA.

Human Rights Education and certificates

We cannot talk about human rights education, human rights courses and diplomas isolated from the above context. I would like to mention three elements I consider to be important in human rights education. One is the need to study philosophy, history, laws, institutions, gaining skills to research, theorise, analyse. Secondly, to learn about rights violations and abuses. Thirdly, to learn about struggles for justice. I have not followed any course or diploma in human rights, and learned the first in the process of the being involved in the second and the third. Unlike the first, the last two cannot be studied from the comfort of meeting rooms, or in hotels, classrooms, libraries or research online. We have to learn about violations and struggles against them from survivors of violations, families of victims and affected communities. By meeting them where they are – such as in their homes, in hospitals, prisons, IDP camps, or by joining them in their struggles – at a roadside protest, a hunger strike, an overnight vigil, in court battles, or negotiating with authorities.

I’m aware that some of you in the class, your friends, and your family members may also be survivors of violations. Some of you maybe already be involved in struggles for justice. I was impressed when most of you following the course agreed to visit the families of disappeared at the overnight roadside protest. And I’m happy to hear that some who participated are involved in LHRC work as volunteers.

Today, you will get a certificate. Receiving a certificate can be a nice feeling, give a sense of achievement, and practically, they can help you advance in your education and career. The certificate is a small indicator of you completing the course on human rights. But the real indicator of learning about human rights will be from what you do to prevent violations, fight against them, and support the struggles of survivors, victim families and affected communities. You may not get certificates when you do this, but instead, face persecution and reprisals from state, from your own community, colleagues, friends and families. I have faced and still face such challenges and often ask myself whether it was worth it. I hope you will rise to this challenge. I hope the course will support the emergence of a new generation of activists and strengthen ongoing struggles for justice.


Ekneligoda, Sugirtharajan and 24th January

First published at on 24th January 2018

For several years, the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka and free expression advocates have dubbed January as “Black January”. This was in the context of a large number of journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, as well as attacks on media institutions – all in January.

24th is one such black day in January. The Trincomalee based Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was shot dead on 24th January 2006. The Colombo based Sinhalese cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on 24th January 2010.

The almost forgotten journalist killing: Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan

Sugirtharajan, popularly known as SSR, was a part-time provincial journalist working for the Tamil language daily Sudar Oli. He was a father of two children. He had been staying a few kilometers from the office of the Eastern Province Governor. A journalist and close friend of SSR, took me to the spot SSR was shot. It was approximately less than 100 meters from the Governor’s office and about 200 meters from his own house. Another journalistic colleague and friend of SSR told me that before the killing, SSR had been feeling insecure and wanted to find a safer house in a different location. A house had been identified, but he was killed before he could actually move. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that the nearest reason for his killing would have been the photos he took of 5 youth murdered on the beach of Trincomalee on 2ndJanuary 2006, popularly known now as the “Trinco 5 case”. Another friend of SSR, also known to me, told me that on the morning of 3rd January 2006, SSR had told him that he wanted to get photos of the five youth killed, whose bodies were at the mortuary. Our mutual friend had dropped SSR, armed with a camera, at the hospital. According to him, the military was not allowing anyone, even the families of the youth, access to the mortuary to see the bodies. But SSR had persisted. And finally, the photos he took were published on “Sudar Oli” newspaper on 4th January 2006. They had shown clear gunshot wounds, thus, disputing the version that the youth had not been shot dead. Reporters sans frontières (RSF) had noted that SSR had also detailed the abuses committed by Tamil paramilitary groups including the EPDP in the Trincomalee region, the day before his murder.

One journalist friend of SSR in Trincomalee spoke to me at length about his association with SSR and aftermath of his killings. He said he had spontaneously rushed to the spot of his killing when he heard the news, but later, was too scared to go to the hospital to see the body or even for the funeral. Two days later, he had got a letter, from group called “Force destroying the Enemy”. The letter had accused him of canvassing for Vanni Tigers, that 3 such persons had been identified, verdict had been delivered and implemented on one person (Sugirtharajan) and that he should count his days, as he was going to be the 2nd.

Disappearance of a journalist: Prageeth Ekneligoda

Like SSR, Prageeth Ekneligoda had also attracted the wrath of persons he had critiqued and exposed through his writings and cartoons. Prageeth also is a father of two boys. Reports by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the Courts indicate that Ekneligoda was abducted from Rajagiriya in the Colombo district by Army Intelligence personnel, and taken to Giritale Army Intelligence camp, where he had been questioned about a book related to family of then President Rajapakse. According to CID investigation reports to courts, the abductors had moved from Akkaraipattu to Giritale from 25th until the 27th afternoon, without proper records of their movements and that of vehicles. Both the CID and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Hostile posters had appeared on public places against Ekneligoda’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, the central figure in the campaign for truth and justice in Ekneligoda’s disappearance. She has faithfully gone to courts more than hundred times, often alone, despite the hostility of suspects who were from Military Intelligence, that had been arrested and subsequently released on bail. The suspect’s supporters had also been hostile to Sandya, and she was compelled to complain to the Police about intimidation from one of these, Galaboda Ethhe Gnanasara Thero, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena. A separate case is progressing in relation to this, after Sandya had insisted on justice through the judicial process instead of “settling” the matter through a mediation board.

Free expression today

I feel this write-up will not be complete without briefly looking at free expression in Sri Lanka today. I will try doing this through some incidents that made strong impressions on me in 2017. In and around Colombo, the house of a vocal campaigner against a prison massacre was shot at, a human rights lawyer got death threats from an unknown caller, another rights lawyer was threatened by the then Minister of Justice for speaking out against violence against religious minorities and a trade union leader was abducted amidst months long worker’s protest. In the former war ravaged North, a protesting wife of a disappeared man was assaulted, a memorial for war dead was stopped and organizers harassed and subjected to investigations, youth were questioned and threatened by Police for posting photos of a government office and journalists were summoned for questioning, stopped from engaging in investigative journalism and reporting issues such as disappearances and militarization etc. Websites have been blocked arbitrarily. There are many more I can add to the list. Clearly, although no journalist was killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka in 2017, it was still a bad year for free expression and fundamental freedom.

Prospects for justice for Ekneligoda, Sugitharajan and other victims

The courageous, determined and sustained campaign of 8 years by Sandya, significant national and international media attention and investigations by the CID appears to have brought out some truths about the disappearance of Ekneligoda in 2015-2016. But progress appears to have stalled, or even moved backwards last year, primarily due to lack of cooperation from the Army and key suspects being released on bail a few weeks after President publicly questioned their detention. Compared to Ekneligoda, there has been very little national and international interest about Sugirtharajan, murdered four years before Ekneligoda disappeared. Not surprisingly, there is no progress in investigations and no arrests.

It is twelve years since Sugirtharajan was killed. Eight years after Ekneligoda disappeared. And three years since a government that had a mandate of “good governance” came into power, promising accountability for past violations, such as against Sugirtharajan and Ekneligoda. But right now, for both of them, as well as numerous other freedom of expression violations, including in Black January, prospects for truth and justice through prosecutions and convictions appear bleak and a distant dream.

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 


The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.




[iv] (page 8, section 1 – B)





[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017


Black July, Government promises and our future

Transcript of sharing at the Black July commemoration in London, 25th July 2016, first published at on 26th July 2016

I’m thankful to British Tamils Forum (BTF) for inviting me to share some reflections and thoughts on this occasion.

Many of you gathered for this commemoration might be Tamils. Some may be survivors and families of victims of Black July and numerous other abuses which may have compelled you to leave Sri Lanka. Black July, and much of your sufferings have come at the hands of the Sinhalese dominated state, its military and police and an ideology of Sinhalese – Buddhist superiority. And also due to Sinhalese society’s refusal to acknowledge your identity and specific problems you have faced due to your ethnicity. As a Sinhalese, I share my thoughts today in a spirit of humility and introspection, but also with hopes of moving forward together towards a better future.

I understand that an apology from an ordinary individual like me might not mean much. But as a Sinhalese, I would still like to apologize to all those Tamil brothers and sisters who have suffered much during Black July and countless other such horrific incidents.

I regret I’m not in London to join this event in person. But I thought that being in Sri Lanka during these days would be more meaningful. The last few days, I had chances to share and reflect about Black July with group of Sinhalese journalists in Ampara and also be part of Sinhalese Radio program which was dealing with ethnic conflict, in which we talked about Black July. These were difficult but important conversations.

Riots against minorities in Sri Lanka

25th July 1983 is the day thousands of Tamils in Colombo and other Sinhalese majority areas were slaughtered by Sinhalese mobs, on the streets, in their houses, in vehicles. The killings and looting continued for several days. They were supported by the UNP government of the day, with an extremely powerful Executive President and massive 5/6 majority in parliament. The present Prime Minister and the leader of the UNP, Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, was a Minister at that time. I don’t know whether he actively or tacitly supported the riots like his leader, President J. R. Jayawardena, or whether he opposed and condemned the riots.

Sadly, riots against minorities in Sri Lanka are not a thing of the distant or recent past. Riots against Tamils have been reported in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 2006. The earliest and latest riots against minorities, specifically the Muslims, have been reported in 1915 and as recently as 2014. Sinhalese mobs, backed by the UNP or SLFP government of the day, have been responsible for these. Police and Military, the majority of whom are also Sinhalese, have actively participated in some of these riots or at times refused to intervene in a timely manner to stop the carnage. Some Buddhist Monks are also reported to have participated in some of these riots, and actually instigated and led the last one against Muslims in 2014.

Among the different riots, Black July had gained most visibility locally and internationally, and is remembered most often. It’s also probably the biggest factor that led to hundreds of thousands of Tamils to seek refugee overseas, leading to numerically, politically and financially powerful “Tamil Diaspora”. I understand that Black July also led to thousands of youth joining the LTTE, as a way of defending themselves from the Sinhalese state.

Black July and other such riots have not been spontaneous acts, but crimes that have been deliberately planned and executed. The state, which should be protecting the citizens, was behind the crimes or complicit. Electoral lists were a key weapon to single out Tamils during Black July. Even if triggers for some riots may have been violent or provocative acts by the LTTE or other individuals or groups, extra-judicial, barbaric collective punishment for whole groups of peoples, and that too repeatedly, is absolutely unjustified and unacceptable under any circumstances.

Massacre of prisoners 

Prisoners – suspects, those charged and those convicted – are amongst the most vulnerable in society. They are dependent on the protection and care of the state. How we treat them could indicate our humanity and civility. One of the most horrific parts of “Black July” was the massacre of Tamil detainees at Colombo’s Welikada Prison. 35 were reported as killed on 25th July and 18 more on 27th July. Tamil detainees were also killed in 1997, 2000 and 2012 in Kaluthara, Bindunuwewa and Vavuniya. In 2012 November, 27 Sinhalese and Muslim prisoners were killed in the same Welikada prison. Irrespective of their guilt or innocence, they didn’t deserve to be massacred. I know some of their mothers and family members are still awaiting justice. Today, let’s also remember them and their families in a special way.

Truth Commission & Apology for Black July

In 2001, then President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Truth Commission to look at Black July.

Later, during a commemoration of Black July in 2004, President Kumaratunga made a historic public apology[1]. Nominal and symbolic compensation was offered to some survivors and victim’s families, which was reported to be on average Rs. 77,000 per person[2]. According to President Kumaratunga, the Commission’s work had indicated nearly 1000 persons killed, 1000s injured and 18,000 properties destroyed. She acknowledged that the scale of tragedy would have been much more, as all facts may not have been available to the Commission and many incidents would not have been reported. Coming from the head of state, this was important. But sadly, she didn’t apologize or even acknowledge massacres of Tamil detainees in Kaluthara and Bindunuwewa and numerous other abuses under her own presidency. Today, she leads the Office for National Unity & Reconciliation under the Presidential Secretariat.

Latest government promises 

This year, we remember Black July, after the new Sri Lankan government has announced an ambitious transitional justice agenda, with commitments for truth seeking, reparations, criminal justice through prosecutions and measures to guarantee non-reoccurrence. Plus a new constitution, which is expected to address power sharing and degree of autonomy for Tamil majority areas.

Black July this year could indicate the genuineness of government’s commitments and provide yet another opportunity for the country to move forward. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are leaders of the two major Sinhalese dominated political parties which have ruled Sri Lanka since 1948 and under whose watch, and with whose support, all the riots have happened. In fact, both have been Ministers when riots against minorities were unleashed. Today, there’s a unique opportunity for them to go beyond what President Kumaratunga did, by jointly acknowledging the riots against minorities and extending a formal public apology.

Beyond acknowledging and apologising, Black July anniversary could be an opportunity to assess damages and plan towards awarding meaningful reparations, going beyond the rather measly compensation offered for some survivors and families of victims of the Black July under the Kumaratunga presidency.  It’s very late, but not too late to try and make up for wrongs done.

Today would also be an opportunity to initiate fresh investigations and initiate arrests and prosecutions against those responsible for Black July and other such incidents. Not just those responsible for their implementation, but politicians and high level military, police and prison officials who would have planned or supported these atrocities. Or deliberately turned a blind eye and ensured others responsible did the same.

More than rhetoric and promises, it’s such actions that will indicate to survivors and victim’s families, and minorities as a whole, that this government is sincere towards reconciliation.

Individual Sinhalese heroes and Collective responsibility of Sinhalese society

Riots against minorities will forever be a black mark against Sinhalese as a community. Despite the many heroic acts by individual Sinhalese to save Tamil lives and their properties during Black July. There were also Muslims and Burghers who had come forward to save Tamils. We must acknowledge and appreciate these individual acts of solidarity beyond ethnic lines, at a most critical and dangerous time. But we must not let these individual acts cloud the collective responsibility of Sinhalese society, for allowing Sinhalese majoritarian racism and superiority complexes to flourish, leading to historical and structural discrimination, domination and violence against minorities. Till today.

Black July and other riots are just part of the story of Tamils in Sri Lanka. We cannot forget the systemic atrocities committed during the last months of the war in 2009 and throughout the three decade war. Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence and mass and multiple displacements are part of the history of Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka.

Even under the good governance and reconciliation agenda of this new government, there are reports of initiatives to dominate and assimilate Tamils, such as continued occupation of Tamil’s lands and building of new Buddha statues and temples in areas where there are no Buddhists. The military is complicit in these. Till today, military is involved in many civilian affairs such as pre-schools, farms, tourist centres, hotels and shops in the Tamil majority North. Tamils still complain of being under the jackboot of a pre-dominantly Sinhalese military, which stands accused of very serious crimes and human rights violations against Tamils. There had been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the 3 preceding months.

Appeal to Tamil brother and sisters

As a Sinhalese, I struggle to come to terms with horrific crimes unleashed by political, military and religious leaders from Sinhalese community against Tamils and the complicity of Sinhalese society as a whole. But I also would like to make an appeal to my Tamil brothers and sisters, which I hope you will consider, even though some may be offended or ask “who are you to ask us”.

It’s important that you remember the atrocities against yourselves and your community. But please don’t ignore and forget the “minorities” in the North and East and along it’s borders. And the horrific crimes committed against them by the LTTE, an almost exclusively Tamil group, who claimed to represent the Tamils. Stories of people I have met in Sinhalese “border villages” which has seen horrific massacres by the LTTE appear to be as gruesome as stories I have heard from Tamils who had survived riots at hands of Sinhalese state and mobs. When I listened to families and neighbours of Muslims massacred at the Kathankudi Mosque and Muslim friends forcibly evicted from the Northern Province, both by the LTTE, it sounded as terrible as experiences narrated to me by Tamils who had survived riots in 1983. In my visits to interior villages of the Vanni, I have heard stories of hill country Tamils and their marginalisation, frustrations and difficulties living in the North, after having fled due to riots by Sinhalese. I believe remembering, acknowledging and reflecting on these will deepen our experiences of Black July and help understand and address broader patterns of discrimination and oppression.

Looking towards the future

Discrimination, domination and marginalisation of Tamils by Sinhalese dominated state are the root causes of the conflict and led to war. During the war, horrific abuses were committed against Tamils as well as against Sinhalese and Muslims, by the state and the LTTE. Today, there appear to be some opportunities to address these through political and legal processes in Sri Lanka. Despite terrible experiences with series of failed mechanisms of the past, problems with today’s processes, ongoing violations such as the ones I noted above and indications of lack of seriousness and sincerity on the part of the government, I believe these are opportunities that should not be missed. It would be good to analyze and reflect on opportunities and limits of the present moment and other alternatives available for survivors and victims of violations, before deciding to engage or disengage or limits of engagement.

I also believe it’s important for ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, along with Diaspora and international friends, to join hands to take measures that will lead to truth, reparations, justice and non-reoccurrence. We can’t move forward by sweeping tragedies of the past under the carpet and forgetting about them. That’s why commemorations such as Black July are important. Despite efforts by the previous government and to lesser extent by this government, to restrict remembrances, people, especially survivors and families of victims of violations, have refused to forget. We will need to accept what we had done to each other, and what has been done in our names, without being selective. Despite the horrific experiences of the past, I hope we can walk together in pursuit of an equal, free and dignified future.



Sri Lanka’s new Missing Persons Office and the Catholic Church

First published at on 28th June 2016

Catholic priests are among the over 65,000 people who have been reported as disappeared in Sri Lanka. Included among that number are also many journalists, human rights activists, and the Vice Chancellor of Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest, disappeared on Aug. 20, 2006. He was last seen going into the navy controlled Allaipiddy area in the northern city of Jaffna. Wenceslaus Vimalathas, a lay associate who was with him, also disappeared.

Father Brown had tried to protect civilians during heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil rebels by offering them shelter in a church. It didn’t work. Many civilians were killed and injured when the church was eventually attacked. Father Brown had pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone but was reportedly rebuffed.

Father Francis Joseph, another Tamil Catholic priest, also disappeared. He was last seen being taken away by the Sri Lankan Army in Mullaitivu on May 18, 2009, the last day of war.

He had brokered the surrender of some rebel Tamil leaders in return for assurances of their safety. But those leaders too disappeared and their Habeas Corpus cases have dragged on for several years in the courts.

Till the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese. Since then, the majority have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, including Pattani Razeek, a good friend of mine. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found.

Groups led by Catholic priests and nuns in the predominantly Tamil-Hindu areas in the North and East have been documenting disappearances, supporting families, and raising their voices against the crimes and the culture of impunity. But these are exceptions. Most church leaders have stayed silent. Why?

Those that have campaigned against the disappearances have faced intimidation, threats and arrest. A Catholic priest and myself were arrested in 2014 for investigating the disappearances. A few months later, a private discussion between affected families, activists and diplomats at a church-run center was disrupted by a mob led by Buddhist monks. The police refused to assist us.

Successive governments have set up numerous bodies to address the disappearances. Affected families and activists have engaged with them more out of desperation than good faith. But truth, justice, and reparations have been elusive.

The latest government effort has been to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). It was one of the significant commitments the government made when they co-sponsored the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka last October. But the development of the O.M.P has been shrouded in secrecy with very little consultation, despite promises made to the contrary.

Father Brown’s distraught mother passed away without knowing what happened to her son, and his lonely father has told me that his only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Families whose breadwinners have disappeared need financial and material support, while others continue to demand justice.

To fulfill such expectations, the OMP will have to be more victim centered, transparent, independent and a well-resourced office, which will also facilitate the rights of families to reparations and justice, along with the right to truth. There are still opportunities to do this by influencing the draft legislation to establish the OMP, which awaits parliamentary approval.

But this may only happen if families, activists and U.N. officials make strong demands. Church leaders should also join such efforts, demanding truth and justice for those like Fathers Brown and Joseph.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

Sri Lanka’s 65,000 Disappeared: Will the Latest Missing Persons’ Office Bring Answers?

First published at on 14th June 2016

There is still a possibility to make the Office of Missing Persons an institution that can provide some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared.

A few days ago I was with Mauri Inoka, whose husband disappeared in September 2013. She was protesting on the pavement of a major road in Colombo, close to the presidential secretariat, sweltering in the heat, with her twin children, aged about two-and-half years, born just two months after their father disappeared. The children seemed tired, hungry and thirsty, and cried most of the time. Their mother tried to console them and spoke with determination to the media personnel interviewing her, while the policemen tried to make her give up the protest. But later, after being compelled to talk to the same officials who had made empty promises at the presidential secretariat one year ago, and after the journalists and police left, Inoka also broke down and cried.

Inoka claims that the police are complicit or have information about her husband’s disappearance. Her complaints to the police, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and the former and present president have not yielded any answers for 1,010 days. She almost lost her job. They were often scared, homeless, hungry, displaced by floods and dependent on the occasional support that a few family members, friends, and activists could offer. Inoka was threatened several times not to pursue the case of her husband’s disappearance and was also abducted and dumped on the roadside.


In the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese, like Inoka’s husband. Since then, the majority of those who disappeared have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, such as my friend and colleague Pattani Razeek. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found after he disappeared. Some suspects have been arrested, but his family believes the master minds are free and no one has been charged. Razeek’s son regularly calls me seeking help to ensure justice for his father.

In August 2006, Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest and his assistant, Vimalathas disappeared. They had gone into a navy held area, after signing in at a navy checkpoint in Allaipiddy, Jaffna. Brown had offered shelter to people in his church to save them from bombs and shells, during heavy fighting but many civilians were killed and injured inside the church. Brown survived and had later pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone. He was reportedly threatened by a navy officer, and there were reports that the navy had refused orders of the magistrate to hand over the log book at the checkpoint.

They are amongst the 65,000 Sri Lankans reported to have disappeared. In the 36 year old history of the UN’s working group on disappearances, it’s the second largest case from Sri Lanka.

Eyewitness testimonies and other available evidence indicate that the Sri Lankan state – particularly its army, navy and police may be responsible for most disappearances, in the context of counter-terrorism operations mainly. The evidence also indicates that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is also responsible for many disappearances, especially during the last stages of the war.

Ironically, amongst the families of the disappeared that I have worked with, is a mother of an air force officer who had gone missing and a wife of a LTTE leader who had disappeared after surrendering to the army, along with hundreds of other LTTE leaders. About 5,000 soldiers from the Sri Lankan armed forces are also believed to be missing in action.

State role 

Families of the disappeared and the activists have faced numerous threats, intimidation, restrictions, surveillance, arrests and detention as they campaigned for truth and justice for the disappeared. In December 2011, Lalith and Kugan, campaigners against the disappearances, disappeared. In March 2014, Jeyakumary, a Tamil mother seeking truth and justice for her son, whose photo had been seen in a government-run rehabilitation facility, was arrested.  A colleague and I were also arrested when we went to investigate it. All three of us are still terrorist suspects with pending cases against us. In August 2014, when I was attending a private discussion between some families of the disappeared with lawyers, activists and diplomats, a mob led by Buddhist monks invaded the private church run building and disrupted the meeting. The police refused to intervene or provide protection. Families of the disappeared were stopped twice from coming to Colombo from the north to hand over petitions during the previous regime.

Successive government have set up many bodies to address disappearances, and families of the disappeared and activists have engaged with them, sometimes in good faith and sometimes in desperation. But truth, justice and reparations have been elusive.

A commitment the present government made through co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution, was fulfilled last month with the ratification of the International convention against disappearances. The government, however, barred Sri Lankans from making complaints to the committee monitoring the implementation of the convention by not recognising article 31. Another commitment in the UN resolution was to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). The commitment to enact a domestic law making disappearances a crime in Sri Lanka has not been fulfilled and there is no timeline for this, though it is crucial for disappearances to be criminalised before the OMP is established.

OMP as an institution

The OMP was one of the four focuses of the consultation task force appointed to conduct consultations on transitional justice. But instead of consulting people, the government relied on a secret process to come up with a draft bill to establish the OMP. After about eight months, almost at the end of the drafting process, the foreign ministry held a hastily convened de-briefing for few activists. Due to insistence of activists, another de-briefing for few families of the disappeared was held ten days later. Both were in Colombo. Four days later, the draft bill was approved by the cabinet. Technically, the bill can still be amended before it is passed into law by the parliament, but it seems unlikely that it will be changed substantially.

The draft bill is promising with concern to the right of the families to truth, with no restrictions on temporal or geographical restrictions, clauses guaranteeing anonymity for witnesses, opportunities for international expertise, powers to summon any person and obtain documents and other materials, make unannounced visits to relevant places, seek search warrants and court orders for exhumations. The office will also have branch offices.

The draft bill, however, doesn’t give the OMP prosecutorial authority and this may hamper the possibility to offer plea bargains, immunity in exceptional circumstances and other forms of incentives to elicit information.

The draft bill is vague. Gender and ethnic composition is not specified. There is no provision to include families of the disappeared in the most senior oversight body. There is no requirement for the appointing authorities to give time and opportunities to families of the disappeared and others to comment on nominees or make nominations. The regularity to provide information to families is not specified and it’s not obligatory to provide maximum information to families.

The right to pursue justice is compromised by the OMP not having prosecutorial authority and being given the discretion to share or not share information with the external prosecutorial and judicial bodies. There is no provision to ensure that tracing investigations will be done in tandem with criminal investigations or that the OMP will ensure information and evidence discovered will be treated with best international criminal investigation standards, to enable them to be admissible during any subsequent prosecutions.

Justice and aid 

At the moment, there are no initiatives to ensure economic justice for the families or offer any financial and material assistance in the form of interim reparations. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, a totally separate entity, which is likely to take a long time to establish. Some of the families, whose breadwinners have disappeared, may not even be able to engage with the OMP because of extreme poverty.

Procedures and obligations to deal with identified or unidentified human remains are weak in the present draft bill. At the only opportunity they had before the cabinet approval, some families of the disappeared appealed to change the name from “missing” to “disappear”. But despite promises to consider it, the name remains unchanged.

The distraught mother of Brown passed away without knowing what happened to her son. His lonely and ageing father’s only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Inoka desperately needs support for housing, education and food for her children, so that she can continue her struggle for truth and justice. Many families don’t have adequate financial, emotional and legal support and accompaniment to strengthen their struggles. I have often struggled and ended up frustrated trying to mobilise support for families of the disappeared, amongst politicians, journalists, artists, lawyers, activists and the general public.

At least one person was abducted by the dreaded “White Van”, a symbol of disappearances in Sri Lanka, last April. He was later found in police custody. The discovery of explosives and suicide jacket near Jaffna had led to new wave of arrests of some Tamils from the north and east since the end of March, under the draconian and much abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the government has promised to repeal. Torture and lack of due process has been reported in relation to some of these arrests.

The above context, and lack of consultations and sensitivity to ideas of families of disappeared in creating the OMP and the limits in the draft bill has created an environment of suspicion about it. There is still a possibility to make the OMP an institution that can provide at least some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared, rather than giving more agony and trauma. But it will require principled commitment from politicians, sensitivity of the general public and lot of work from families themselves and those supporting them.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with families of the disappeared, and was involved in documentation, campaigns and advocacy in relation to the disappearances. He is a member of Watchdog Collective, Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre in Colombo.

Prospects for reconciliation and development in Sri Lanka

First published at on 18th May 2016

How far has the island nation come since the civil war ended seven years ago?

The seventh anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war falls on May 18, a date that is likely to once again polarize the island’s society along ethnic lines.

Most Sinhalese are expected to see May 18 as a day for celebration. Many Tamils, especially in the North and East, are instead likely to see it as a day of mourning for their loved ones killed or disappeared and to recall the suffering they underwent during the decades-long war. Tamil politicians and Catholic priests in the North and East are planning commemorations despite the likelihood of government crackdowns, as we saw last year and before.

Last week, I visited a cemetery for former Tamil militants that was bulldozed by the government after the end of the war. An army camp has now been built over it. The loved ones of those whose remains were there have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle or say a prayer.

The Tamil majority north is now dotted with monuments to the Sinhalese dominated military. The ability to remember loved ones without intimidation and reprisals, and remembering without glorifying abuses of human rights violations, is a major challenge, especially for Christians, who are both Sinhalese and Tamils.

Even after the President Maithripala Sirisena government came to power in early 2015, there have been restrictions, attacks and intimidation of activists and journalists. However, there has been more space for free expression and assembly now than under the previous government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Divisions in society and civil society are also prevalent in the Catholic Church, along ethnic and ideological lines. A few church leaders, both Tamil and Sinhalese, have given leadership, support and protective presence to survivors, victim’s families and activists. Their leadership and presence has been visible most recently in protests against the Port City project (a planned city located offshore in Colombo) and initiatives by families of disappeared persons and against militarization.

They have also been involved in remembrance services for those killed and engaging with the government, foreign governments and the UN on human rights issues. These efforts must continue, especially struggles that bring together Sinhalese and Tamil Christians.

But even the most activist clergy and lay Christians must be careful about compartmentalizing struggles for truth and justice.

Land and housing

After years of campaigning and legal action, some of the land illegally occupied by the military has been released. But the military continues to occupy many villages and large swathes of land in the North and East.

The government has made a commendable commitment to build 65,000 houses for the war affected. But it’s planning to pay an unprecedented 2.1 million rupees ($US 14,500) per house to a foreign steel manufacturer with no housing experience. Most post war houses in the North and East of Sri Lanka have been built for less than one third of that price.

Housing experts, engineers, architects and activists have pointed out that steel houses will not last as long as traditional brick ones. Such structures are not well ventilated, nor are they easy to repair or to expand. They likewise lack facilities to engage in traditional cooking which uses low cost and easily available firewood. Steel housing will not help stimulate the local economy because there is no use of local resources or labor.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

The discovery of explosives and suicide jackets near Jaffna in March has led to intensified surveillance and questioning of Tamils in that region.

At least 30 people have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some have been detained without being told why they are being held.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a draconian law that enables the minister of defense or the police to detain people without checks and balances. It has allowed widespread torture and disappearances to occur. Persons detained under this law are languishing in prisons without being judged either guilty or innocent.

An investigation against myself under this law by the Terrorism Investigation Division has continued for more than two years despite appeals by my lawyers. Others, who were detained under the law and subsequently released, are still being subjected to investigation and harassment such as being re-arrested, forced to regularly report to police stations and not being allowed to travel overseas.

A dreaded “white van” — a symbol of abductions of the previous regime — was used to abduct a Tamil man from Jaffna last month, and he was later found in police custody.

Several other disappearances were reported from the North and East last month, while the government was going about creating an Office of Missing Persons. Despite promises of consultations before it is set up, how this office will operate had been shrouded in secrecy for eight months. Its first outline was presented last week and it has been found lacking in many ways, especially in regards to provision of information to families of victims, reparations and issuance of certificates of absence. The right of families to pursue criminal accountability has been compromised because the office’s tracing investigations have been isolated from prosecutorial investigations.

The government has also not shared it’s ideas in relation to three other transitional justice mechanisms that it committed itself to establishing as a part of a UN Human Rights Council resolution that it co-sponsored last October.

Unfortunately President Maithripala Sirisena has publicly backtracked from a commitment to have foreign judges, prosecutors and lawyers in a special judicial mechanism for wartime abuses. Meanwhile some survivors, victims’ families and human rights activists including Catholic clergy insist in foreign participation, citing a lack of confidence in the Sri Lankan justice system.

Although several military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested for human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Which way for Sri Lankan society?

A consultation process towards a new constitution drew a large number of public representations, but the next steps are not clear, particularly in finding political solutions to the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The new government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalize the poor. A high profile example is the controversial Port City project, which targets the super-rich.

Despite a public pre-election commitment to scrap the project by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the project is ongoing, as are protests and pending court cases that highlight disastrous consequences for the livelihood of fisherfolk and for the environment.

Serious concerns have likewise been expressed about the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement with India and the Megapolis development plan for the capital and surrounding areas.

Activists have also pointed out that very little attention is being given to economic justice during discourse about transitional justice. Attempts by the military and corporates to dominate the economy in the war-ravaged North have led to traditional livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing being sidelined and the non-stimulation of the local economy. There has been an increase in widespread debt, unemployment and poor working conditions, especially in the informal sectors.

The new government’s more open approach to civil society has led to many international transitional justice experts coming to Sri Lanka and local activists becoming part of government initiatives. These have led to many workshops in expensive hotels during a time of serious economic crisis.

Some activists and intellectuals appear to be disconnected to ground realities and oblivious to, or seek to override people’s voices. Some ignore day-to-day problems of the people; such as dealing with loved ones who disappeared, are detained, sexual abuse, military occupied land and economic hardships. They instead prioritize prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which doesn’t seem to be a priority for most survivors and families of victims.

Other activists seem to focus almost exclusively on economic and social issues and appear reluctant to recognize and even undermine the courageous and determined struggles of survivors and victim’s families for truth and justice.

Pre-war rights issues such as landlessness, sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, caste, rights of workers, including those working on tea estates, still need to be addressed.

Overall, the key challenges for the country’s reconciliation and sustainable development are how we address civil and political rights and economic, social cultural rights in a holistic manner. And do so in a way that does not ignore war survivors, victims’ families and the poor, who yearn for truth, reparations, criminal accountability and economic justice.

There should be no sweeping under the carpet the violence and abuses committed by state and non-state armed groups and within society.

Disappearances in Sri Lanka & Role of Civil Society

This is an expanded text version of a talk at a forum organized by the Law & Society Trust (LST) on “Recognizing the Struggle: State’s responsibilities towards families of the disappeared”, on Friday 18 March 2016.

It is significant for me to talk about civil society’s role on disappearances at an event organized by Law and Society Trust (LST) because it was at LST that I was thrust into working with families of disappeared persons. Families have always been and will remain central to the struggle against disappearances. They remain my primary inspiration, perhaps the reason I have not been able to give up, even when I often felt like giving up.


I remember that on this day, exactly two years ago, I was in detention at the Terrorism Investigation Division with another friend, Fr. Praveen. The nearest trigger for our arrest appeared to have been our efforts to look into the arrest of a mother of a disappeared child, Balendran Jeyakumary (who was also a vocal campaigner seeking truth and justice for disappearances) and other Tamils in the North. More than a year after “good governance”, Jeyakumary. Fr. Praveen and me are still being investigated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Ironically, at the same time, I have been invited for various meetings of the government and to be part of an Expert Advisory Committee related to Transitional Justice (which I didn’t accept due to various other reasons), despite still being a “terrorist suspect” and having a court order restricting my freedom of expression.

Although Jeyakumary was conditionally released two months after President Sirisena took office, she was re-arrested last year under “good governance”. She also faces serious social isolation due to this and struggles to find livelihood and has been compelled to keep her young daughter in a hostel. There has been no news about her disappeared son, who she claims has appeared in a photo taken at a government rehabilitation facility.

We are also no closer to the truth or justice in relation to the disappearance of Lalith and Kugan, two campaigners against disappearances, who disappeared in Jaffna in December 2011.

Families of disappeared and activists don’t face the kind of attacks, threats, intimidations, discrediting etc. that we experienced under the Rajapakse regime. But monitoring of families of disappeared persons and activists in the North and East continues. And there is total impunity for the reprisals we faced in the past.

It is in this context that I talk about disappearances, the Government’s promises of Transitional Justice (TJ), and role of civil society.

Transitional Justice promises in the context of disappearances

The Government has promised to deliver Truth, Criminal Justice (prosecutions / convictions), Reparations, and Guarantees of non-recurrence. All these four are rights of families of disappeared persons.

The Government has also committed to set up four specific Transitional Justice (TJ) related institutions and has appointed a Task Force to conduct nationwide consultations regarding the setting up of these institutions. The institution proposed to solely focus on disappearances is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). Given the nature of disappearances in Sri Lanka, the other three proposed mechanisms (the Truth Commission, the Judicial mechanism, and the Office of Reparations) will also likely be relevant. Commitments by the Government to criminalize disappearances, ratify the international convention against disappearances, issue certificates of absence and repeal the PTA are other key TJ promises of the Government in relation to disappearances.

As we focus on TJ promises and a TJ approach, we should also be careful of it’s limits, including addressing old injustices and inequalities pre-dating the war, such as class, caste, gender etc.

Civil society’s role in relation to disappearances

The Government has primary responsibility to prevent disappearances and address disappearances that have happened. But I will not dwell on this and will go on to focus on the role of civil society. I will take a broader definition of civil society to include lawyers, artists, academics, religious clergy, NGOs, trade unions etc. I will share some personal experiences and what I see as twelve challenges.

Personal experiences and reflections

I have given many talks in relation to disappearances in different places in Sri Lanka and overseas. I have written several articles[1] and given interviews. I have shared individual stories[2], statistics, general trends, threats, intimidations etc. But last night, I struggled to think of what I will say today.  As I was asked to talk about the role of civil society, and I consider myself to part of civil society, I felt it had to involve some personal introspection, which is often difficult.

None of my family members have disappeared. But I have worked very closely with a few families of disappeared persons and had chances to interact and join many more. They have included Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims.

Since 2015, some new possibilities have opened up to address disappearances of the past. I will deal with some when I talk of challenges.

As a civil society activist, we had to sometimes deal with blurred lines of who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. In August 2012, when we were organizing a protest against disappearances in Vavuniya, I had to argue with Tamil activists why we should join forces with families of missing soldiers, when the Army itself stands accused of being responsible for many disappearances plus many other crimes and rights violations. Around 2010, I had to struggle within LST and argue with close colleagues why I was supporting the wife of a prominent LTTE leader who disappeared after surrendering to the Army, as this person has been accused of child recruitment and other crimes.

In some ways, looking back, our work on disappearances during the Rajapakse regime was simple, despite being dangerous and controversial. During the height of the war, my colleagues and I spent a considerable amount of time accompanying families of disappeared to hospitals, camps, and police stations in their searches. We spent time talking to them in their homes, offices, churches etc. We joined them in protests in the streets, in Colombo, Jaffna, Geneva. We joined them in religious services. We went with them to meet government officials and politicians. We went with them to Courts, the Human Rights Commission, and various other Commissions of Inquiries. We helped them write letters, speeches, and sometimes helped translate them and became their interpreters. We introduced them to others we thought who could help them – lawyers, journalists, clergy, writers, film makers, student activists, diplomats, UN officials, international and regional NGOs. We helped them organize events and we tried help link families with each other. We also tried to tell their stories to as many people as possible.

But in the recent past, I have found it difficult to do even the simple things we used to do with families of disappeared, which I believe is central to dealing with disappearances.

Sandya Eknaligoda, who is well known now, was one of my strongest inspirations[3]. She was a regular visitor to LST when I was working there, and I spent a lot of time with her. But lately, I have not been able to spend as much time with her as before. About two weeks ago, I was sad I couldn’t go to join Sandya at a religious service she organized. A few days later, I was very sad to read that Sandya had to go to courts alone – on International Women’s Day. And both days, I was also sad at my inability to convince any friends or colleagues to join her in solidarity.

A few months ago, a lady whose husband had disappeared called me and asked for help to buy milk food for her two young children. She was keen to pursue legal action, but I was unable to find a lawyer who was willing to appear pro bono. There are other families of disappeared who I have met in the last two months, whose cases I have not been able to follow up properly. In recent times, it has been difficult to find someone to help a family draft a complaint or letter to the UN, Human Rights Commission etc. or to do a translation.

Unlike in the past, in more recent months, my colleagues and I have been unable to have sustained long term relationships with families of disappeared persons we met. We have failed to communicate regularly and to go beyond one-off or occasional meetings and events. We have failed to respond to the specific needs of families and we have been unable to take forward the pursuit of truth and justice, even when opportunities and possibilities existed.

These have been real challenges, real frustrations.

Estela Carlotta from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina described how they used to “cry at home and fight in the streets”. This is probably true for some of the most courageous and determined families of disappeared I have worked closely with. It’s also true for me. Working against disappearances has been traumatic and sometimes a lonely journey. Powerlessness and helplessness have been pre-dominant feelings. I have spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, took lot of risks, lost a lot, and achieved very little. Despite often feeling like giving up, I don’t regret what I have done.

Twelve challenges

Primarily based on my personal experiences and considering the present context, I would like to share twelve challenges facing civil society in terms of addressing disappearances.

  1. Recognizing and addressing a deeply personal tragedy which has become immensely political and has legal dimensions. This will involve a holistic approach, including emotional, financial and legal support, advocacy etc.
  1. Sustained accompaniment and support to families of disappeared (not one off events and long gaps with no communication).
  1. Balancing intensive support for a few families in their struggles and the broader struggles against disappearances.
  1. Getting the support of fellow activists, lawyers, journalists, academics, clergy, politicians, etc.
  1. Recognizing the activism and agency of families and being careful not to undermine them.
    • Ensuring that families make informed decisions when we ask them to join activities we initiate and organize – like protests, seminars etc. Families need to be provided clear information about why their engagement is sought, including who is organizing an event, the nature of an event, the objectives of an event, the issues being protested at a protest, the demands being sought etc.
    • Looking critically and speaking out when we feel families are used as pawns of politicians, NGOs etc.
    • Being careful not to undermine families of disappeared as mere pawns without having minds and agency of their own.
  1. Civil society involvement in movements of families – how much leadership, influence do we take up and how much do families have? How much support is there from civil society when a family of a disappeared person or group of families initiate some actions, such as what Sandya has been doing?
  1. Finding ways to advocate for truth, criminal justice, reparations in a way that will not undermine families’ rights to all three, and will minimize the need for a tradeoff. This will also have to take into consideration different priorities of different families in terms of the above rights. Making available the full report of ICRC’s needs assessment survey to all families of disappeared who participated in it could be helpful tool in assessing this. Supporting and advocating for interim reliefs (not compensation for crime), such as scholarships for children and special assistance for the elderly and disabled in families, housing, employment etc. of disappeared should be taken seriously, in a manner that will not undermine but enhance capacity for families’ rights for truth and justice.
  1. Exploring multiple approaches to truth seeking.
    • Criminal investigations. The few cases I know where we are closer to the truth are based on this – such as the discovery of the body of my friend Pattani Razeek[4] and arrests and information related to Prageeth Ekneligoda.
    • When there is strong evidence indicating who the perpetrators are and when arrests, prosecutions and harsh penalties on conviction are imminent, alleged perpetrators could be encouraged to provide further and detailed information by providing incentives (such as reduced penalties) taking into consideration also wishes of families of disappeared.
    • Encouraging information to surface from alleged perpetrators and institutions implicated by providing them incentives like those used in ordinary criminal cases (such as confidentiality, anonymity and, on a case by case basis, possibly even assurances of immunity), taking into consideration also wishes of families of disappeared.
    • Soliciting information from independent eyewitnesses who are not part of primary perpetrator institutions.
    • Use of DNA and forensics – in relation to mass graves and discovery of human remains in various parts of the country
  1. Engaging and contributing to the proposed Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), considering the past failures and the lack of transparency of the process so far. Some considerations could be:
    • Maximum involvement of the families of disappeared in setting up of the OMP and its operations, including in oversight structures. Their exclusion from the discussions so far is ominous and should be rectified urgently.
    • Ensuring that criminalization of disappearances in Sri Lanka and ratification of the convention against disappearances happens before the enactment of legislature that will establish the OMP.
    • Discussion of how its work could facilitate the pursuance of criminal justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-reoccurrence while focusing primarily on truth seeking (clarification of the fate and whereabouts).
    • Ensuring that the domestic and international agencies involved in the OMP will advance and not block in anyway the pursuit of truth and justice.
    • Defining the scope of crimes that could be covered (based on clear definitions, such as enforced disappearances, missing etc.).
    • Not restricting the consideration of incidents based on date of disappearance (looking at all disappearances, irrespective of the date it occurred)
    • The structure and different units that will form the OMP (such as Forensics, DNA bank, investigations, psychosocial support, victim and witness protection etc.).
    • Who will be in it – overall leadership, leadership of specific units, oversight, staff etc. And who will make appointments.
    • Given the clear expression of the lack of confidence in domestic mechanisms by many families of disappeared, the importance of ensuring maximum international involvement.
    • Possible ways to transfer pending cases from previous Commissions of Inquiries (E.g. Paranagama Commission, Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission, LLRC etc.).
    • Dealing with findings and progress on complaints that have been lodged to the Human Rights Commission, Police and cases pending before Magistrate Courts, High Courts, and Supreme Courts, especially in relation to Habeas Corpus cases.
    • Complementarity and harmonizing of the existing database of the Human Rights Commission.
    • Security of the database.
    • What should be the powers – such as to request and seize any documents and materials, summoning of any persons, visit private or public spaces without prior announcement, conduct exhumations, dealing with institutions and persons not cooperating with its work etc.
  1. Advocating for quick realization of other key commitments of the Government. Criminalization of disappearances, ratification of the UN convention against disappearances, and issuance of certificates of absences and benefits based on that.
  1. Raising awareness amongst the general population and gaining more support from the public – especially the Sinhalese (the mainstream media will have to play a major role in this).
  1. Money.Can we sustain activism beyond donor funding? How do we use funding? E.g. is it ok to spend for one day for one person for a hotel room (to attend a meeting on disappearances), when the amount could be more than what most families of disappeared earns for a month? Gaining donor’s attention to support economic justice by stimulating local economies, generating sustainable employment, alongside their existing support to protests, seminars and such efforts. The private sector could also contribute, but their involvement should be looked at cautiously, to ensure that it will not exacerbate existing economic inequalities or damage to local economies.

[1] For example, see,,,

[2] For example, see,, and