27th October is Day of Commemoration of Disappearances in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans have lived under the terrible shadow of enforced disappearances for decades: in the security forces’ campaign against the JVP leftists in the late 1980s and in the conflict between the LTTE and the military. The numbers affected are overwhelming: the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) ranks Sri Lanka second in the world for the total number of cases reported to that body. There is an estimated backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged enforced disappearances dating back to the 1980s.
Tragically, enforced disappearance is a crime without end. Until families know the truth about a missing loved one it is hard to find closure. Without a body to mourn the grief goes on.
Here, Brito Fernando, a long-term activist and Chair of Families of the Disappeared, speaks about the significance of 27th October as an important day to reflect on disappearances in Sri Lanka.
“My personal connection to Mr Ranjith and Mr Lionel who disappeared on 27 October 1989 marks the beginning of a very long journey towards justice for families of the disappeared.”
Why October 27th? Enforced Disappearance of Mr Ranjith and Mr Lionel, 27 October 1989
On 27 October 1989, Herath Mudiyanselage Ranjith, a worker at the Floral Greens factory in Katunayake’s Free Trade Zone, disappeared. Ranjith, who was just 30, was involved in trade union activism highlighting accidents in the workplace. Ranjith’s activism displeased his employers and he faced dismissal.
On 26 October he was called to a disciplinary inquiry at the factory at four in the afternoon. Mr. Lionel from the Legal Aid Centre in Katunayake was to represent Ranjith. Ranjith’s fiancée, Jayanthi, last heard from Ranjith when they (Ranjith and Lionel) were on their way by pushbike to attend the disciplinary inquiry. Ranjith never returned. The bodies of the two men were burnt and found at Raddolugama junction near Seeduwa. Later the two bodies were also made to disappear.
“This was a well-planned murder. At 8pm the inquiry at the factory was over and it was shortly after this that the abduction happened. I feel very disturbed by this incident as I was the one who was asked to go with Ranjith as his representative for the disciplinary inquiry. Though I was involved with Trade Unions I did not yet have any experiences in representing a worker in an inquiry, so Mr Lionel went instead. Ranjith’s fiancée, Jayanthi, contacted me to say that he had not returned home. The next day 2 bodies were found burning at Raddolugama Junction. A witness identified the men by the shoes still burning in the ashes. Jayanthi made a complaint to the Police in which she accused the factory management of being involved. Because of this direct accusation Jayanthi had to go into hiding for 2 years. At the time, Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, then a Member of Opposition in the Parliament, a lawyer, acted as the inquiry officer. Even he made a statement against the management accusing them of responsibility for this. It is because of this incident that I started to work on disappearances, with Jayanthi. The issue is very personal to me. Ranjith was working very closely with an organization called “DABINDU”. Our group was called “KALAPE API” (We in the Zone). Both groups with the support of some Catholic priests and nuns kept Jayanthi under cover for nearly 2 years.
Due to ongoing state terror, the first gathering didn’t happen until 27 October 1991 when a small group of 16 people, including a Buddhist monk and a Catholic priest, met at the Raddoluwa junction to commemorate Ranjith and Lionel with another 10 Free Trade Zone workers who were disappeared during the same period. It was very risky to conduct such a commemoration at that time.
In that commemoration the 16 participants made a vow to commemorate every October 27th until justice is done for the disappeared and to prevent it happening again.
As the Leftists who were supporting the Provincial Council, which was introduced by the then government to give some powers to the Tamil community in the North and East, we were threatened by the JVP. And, we had threats from the government as we were supporting trade union actions during this period. We rarely slept at our homes. Though we never used them we were carrying guns issued by the then government to political parties who supported the provincial councils to defend ourselves. 33 activists from my political party (the LSSP) were murdered or made to disappear by both the government and the JVP.
In 1992 the 27 October gathering got support from Trade Unions and priests. Politicians also attended. The Police tried to prevent the meeting using tear gas and video surveillance. This did not stop us. We managed to march to Raddoluwa junction and to hold a People’s Tribunal about Ranjith and Lionel’s disappearance in a nearby Churchyard. Based on the testimonies given, the Tribunal gave a verdict that the Personal Manageress at Flora Dreams, Katunayake police station and the government were responsible. Ranjith and Lionel’s disappearances was questioned in Parliament and as a result a Police inquiry was held. But we still do not know what the outcome of that inquiry is.”
The annual 27 October ceremony at Seeduwa allows us a chance to gather and remember Ranjith, Lionel, and all the disappeared due to the uprising in South and during and after the 30-year war in the North and East. It also offers a chance for families of the disappeared to come together and mourn.
Early campaigning and the Seeduwa monument
“We’ve had so many disappearances. We’ve had state terror to deal with the JVP uprising as well as to deal with the rise of armed groups in the north. We weren’t really working on the issues in the North during the 1989 campaign but the fact thousands of young people went missing in the South was a big issue. There was support from politicians to raise the issue of disappearances. The then opposition parliamentarian and future President (present Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa supported the Mother’s Front along with Vasudewa Nanayakkara (a minister now).
Under the leadership of a left political party, we supported an initiative, The Organisation of Parents and the Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD), who were involved in the campaign against disappearances by conducting lots of protests in the South. We organised a continuous march from Colombo to Kataragama for 19 days to highlight justice for the disappeared. In 1993 Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva went to Geneva to raise the issue there. Nearly all the applications to the UN Working group they carried were taken by force at the airport by Police. We demanded truth and justice as well as some sort of reparations for affected families, including non-recurrence.
In the run up to elections in 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga campaigned on this theme echoing some of the messages of the Freedom from Fear campaigns driven by civil society. After her victory, Commissions were set up with important work done by Mrs Muttetuwegama, Chair of the Disappearances Commissions. The Commission made about 26 recommendations on revealing truth, justice, reparation and non-recurrence, but only death certificates were issued and small compensation was paid. Other than that, no recommendations were implemented.Until 1994, due to ongoing uncertainty in the country and fear, only a few parents of the disappeared came to Seeduwa but the left political parties and trade unions supported the activities of October 27. In 2000 we were supported by the Asian Human Rights Committee (AHRC) and “May 18th Memorial Foundation” from Gwangjuu – South Korea to build a monument there with some photos of the victims. Since then, the number of family members increased in the participation in October 27th commemorations.”
The Seeduwa memorial then became a focal point to remember and served as a common graveyard to weep and conduct some religious rites for the disappeared.
Symbolism of the Monument at Seeduwa
The monument was designed by artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. Behind the monument is a Wall of Tears, where about 800 pictures of the disappeared from everywhere are exhibited. It’s a special place where families can gather and remember those as they have no body to bury in the normal way.“Under Chandrika Kumaratunga in memory of 26 children disappeared in the South, a monument called “Ahinsakayange Aaramaya” was built but it was demolished under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime under the orders of the present President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was then the secretary of Defence. There are some memorials built mainly by the Government to remember the members of the forces who were killed or made to disappear during these troubled periods. Many memorials built by the LTTE in the North were demolished by the government. Even though the commemorations held in South are not disturbed now yet the commemorations in North and East are disturbed by the government even with court orders.”
Failure of Sri Lankan authorities
It’s a struggle for families of the disappeared to keep pushing for accountability in Sri Lanka given what they see as official indifference or outright obstruction. Several domestic Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances have been appointed by successive governments since 1990. Altogether they received approximately 80,000 complaints. More than half were considered strong enough for further investigation. But the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to stop acts of enforced disappearance, failed to undertake criminal investigations into complaints, and failed to prosecute those responsible.
“It’s the families in the North who’ve kept the pressure going on disappearances, especially after the war.
“At the end of the war in 2009 many families acted according to the government order and surrendered their loved ones on exiting the No Fire Zone. They felt they were handing over their children to the protection of the government so were frustrated when their questions about where the surrendees were held went unanswered. Hearing nothing, they have been at the forefront in the campaign demanding to know the truth about what happened to them. Though so many promises were given by the then President and PM nothing was revealed. There were continuous campaigns on the street.
“Hope was raised when the previous government co-sponsored the 30/1 resolution in Geneva promising a permanent office to reveal truth, a reparation commission, a hybrid judicial mechanism for accountability and promising non recurrence. The previous government finally established the Office for the Missing Persons (OMP). But the President took a year to sign off on an office. Civil society and families had to keep lobbying. I remember saying to the President ‘the key is with you now open the door’.”
On 30 August 2017 we organised a rally in Viharamadevi Park. It was attended by a few politicians including Mano Ganesan, Sampanthan the US Ambassador, and an assistant state secretary of the US government. It was a rallying call for the OMP to finally deliver some truth. When the office was established, some good appointments were made from civil society, but the problem was that the Office itself did not raise awareness. An officer from the OMP should have travelled to every district to announce himself otherwise families can’t take it seriously.
Even when it comes to reparations the office has not been able to help all the families. In the 2019 budget, Rs. 500 million rupees was allocated for Rs. 6000 monthly interim relief, for 2 years until the reparation commission comes out with a compensation package. The authorities said this should only go to families who had a certificate of absence and again we had to campaign to make this effective for the holders of death certificates also.
Only 153 families received the payments and only 11 million rupees of the budget was used. Nothing was paid under the new government. These things break trust. In the last Commission report, there are many strong cases. The evidence is there but still these cases are not properly inquired into.
Some good things happened after about 30 years under the last government. Though not a single inquiry was held yet the Office of Missing Persons was established. Four regional offices were established. The OMP commemorated August 30 as an official event in 2018 and 2019. OMP suggested interim relief for the families of the disappeared. They also published a list of names of the disappeared and supported some mass grave cases. The last Government ratified the UN convention against Disappearances and introduced new local laws criminalizing disappearances.
But not a single inquiry was held and not a single case fully investigated to reveal the truth.
The previous commissioners, before they completed their service period, published the lists of disappeared persons on the OMP website. But under the new commissioners they have removed the lists of the district based disappeared and only kept the lists of the Armed Forces. The new Chairman of the OMP is a retired judge one Upali Abeyrathne who acted as the president of the Political Victimization commission appointed under the new government and gave some recommendations that filing some cases on disappearances are cases of political victimizations and recommended the authorities release all accused. So, his attitude can very clearly be seen.
Under him we have no hope in getting what OMP expected to gain. OMP will not face a natural death but it will be made to disappear.
Read more about the new OMP commissioners and political interference in independent institutions.
We have continued the 27 October commemoration since 1991 as an annual event. Last year we could not commemorate this as usual due to the curfew under the COVID situation. This year also we will not be able commemorate in a large gathering due the health restrictions. But we will conduct one international webinar with Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).”
With truth for the disappeared still elusive in Sri Lanka 27 October is an important day to hold space and remember:
- Families of the disappeared want truth and justice for their loved ones.
- The Sri Lankan authorities must conduct prompt, thorough, independent and impartial criminal investigations into alleged disappearances and prosecute those responsible for the continuing crimes of disappearances.
- Families of the disappeared must be provided with full and effective reparation, including but not limited to the promised Rs 6000 monthly interim relief.
- The current chairman of the OMP should be removed.
- Victims, families, witnesses, and lawyers must be effectively protected when filing complaints and pursuing truth and justice.
- Family members and civil society representatives should be invited to monitor and scrutinise the work of bodies investigating disappearances.
- Government must not obstruct memorials and peaceful protests by families of the disappeared.
- Government should establish a collective memorial for all victims of disappearances in consultation with families as a first step towards reconciliation.
- Government should stop arbitrary arrests and detention which is the first step towards disappearance and should take all possible steps to prevent abductions.
- Government must repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and new regulations on rehabilitation which allow prolonged detention and facilitate enforced disappearances.
This guest blog was written by Dr Yolanda Foster. Interview with Brito Fernando, October 2021.