Sri Lanka: Gotabhaya acknowledges use of white vans to “take in” suspects

The powerful defence secretary during the Mahinda Rajapaksa rule has acknowledged the use of white vans by Sri Lankan intelligence agencies for abductions which he calls “taking in for questioning”.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made the rare admission of the governments controversial counter insurgency tactics in a recent interview with a Colombo based English daily. The shocking claim comes a week after his sibling, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, acknowledged for the first time that troops committed mass crimes during the war.

In Sri Lanka, with tens of thousands of unresolved enforced disappearances, “white vanning” is a euphemism for abduction and torture - based on the vehicle commonly used.

The former defence secretary had said that Intelligence agencies used white vans claiming that such methods have been used in Sri Lanka for a long time.

“When there was a suspect, he was taken in for questioning through such means,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told Daily Mirror.

“It was not something introduced by me. These methods have been adopted all over the world.  May be our intelligence agencies used Hi Ace vans which are white. I did not introduce it. It happened under all the previous Governments. If you take the violence during the JVP era, everybody, barring the very young people, knows how youth were whisked away by unknown people all over the country.”

His reference to the “JVP era” was the late 80s when a Sinhala youth uprising led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was militarily crushed with extrajudicial killings and abductions.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a senior military officer during the time, functioned as the military coordinator in Matale district in Central Sri Lanka where the second biggest mass grave containing 154 human skeletons was found in November 2012.

'Normal procedure'

He claimed that the feared practice of White Vanning was used exclusively against Tamil Tigers waging a war for self-rule. Rajapaksa lamented that he is being ‘pinpointed’ for the continuation of an age-old practice, which wasn’t “normal procedure”.

“I do not know why I am being pinpointed today. During our time this had never been done to abduct any political opponent, which was not the case in the 88/89 period. Most people above 30 years of age remember what happened during that time.  What happened during our time was only to counter the activities of deadly terrorists.  By 2005, there was a huge network of the LTTE in the south. They had infiltrated the south in a big way. They were able to kill so many people like politicians and military personnel as a result. They were fighting all over the country.  They had an intelligence network and armed caches in most places in Colombo and the suburbs.  We had to trace them including suicide cadres, spies etc.  When you fight terrorism, you cannot stick to the normal procedure. They were fighting in a different way using clandestine guerrilla methods. We had to counter that in a similar manner. That is the way that the intelligence agencies work.”

Lasantha murder

Police and intelligence involved in counter insurgency operations were not directed to probe deadly attacks on journalists, even though the former defence secretary was aware of the perpetrators.

“Although you say it was only terrorists that were targeted, there are allegations levelled against you for the assassination of media personnel such as Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the assault on journalist Keith Noyahr as well. Your comments?,” asked Kelum Bandara in the lengthy Daily Mirror interview.

Rajapaksa replied: “This is another thing. We were not involved in any of these things including the disappearance of that person, Prageeth Ekneligoda. We did not want to do such things. These were done purely for personal reasons by two individuals. I do not want to name them. Immediately after Lasantha’s killing, the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former MP Joseph Michael Perera categorically said in Parliament that it was the work of the then Army Commander.”

The Editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickramatunge, was murdered at the height of the war in January 2009 while political cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared one year later.

Rajapaksa blamed the ruling United National Party (UNP) led propaganda for “putting everything” on him.

“When there was a war going on, we concentrated fully on it. That is true. Under such circumstances, we cannot stop the war to devote ourselves fully on various investigations. The CID and the intelligence authorities had a task assigned to them. With bombs going on around the country and killings by terrorists happening everywhere we had to direct our resources to counter them. That was the reality.”

“True to my heart, I know I was never involved in any of these murders,” he added.☐



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