Relatives of Disappeared ask “betraying” Tamil politicians to step aside

In a statement to the media to mark Independence Day on 4 February, the Association of the Relatives of Enforced Disappearances (ARED) has not only denounced the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala leaders for keeping Tamils in servitude 72 years after the Britain renounced its claim over colonial Ceylon, but it also excoriates the country’s Tamil leadership and machinations of cunning Tamil politicians who are intent on undermining the aims of ARED for parochial political gain.

But most important, the statement makes an open appeal to Tamil leaders that if they cannot stop “betrayal” and speaking in unison to secure the release of the disappeared, that they “step aside with magnanimity” and allow “the youth and those imbued with a spirit of sacrifice for the people,” to take over the leadership.

ARED’s message comes amidst a wave of protests in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces that are majority Tamil-speaking. The protests were non-violent where victims – relatives of the disappeared, landowners whose property was appropriated by the military, students of the University of Jaffna championing the cause of political detainees illegally incarcerated and tortured – held black flags and chanted slogans repudiating actions of the State.

The protests and the media statement by ARED evoke the past yet are pointers to the future. They demonstrate how civil society has had to take up the cause of the oppressed in the face of an unresponsive State and self-serving local politicians.

Return of Rajapaksas

A clear reminder of the past is the new regime installed in Colombo with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascent to power on 16 November. He was Sri Lanka’s secretary of defence in the administration of his brother Mahinda (2005-2015) when most of the disappearances that ARED alludes to in its press statement, occurred.

For many Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015 seemed an opportunity to put behind them the dark days of the Rajapaksas. There was at least a sliver of hope that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior military commanders accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity would be tried and convicted. But the National Unity Government (NUG) (2015-2019) of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to try military commanders for war crimes, permitted corruption and compromised national security. That opened the door for the return of the Rajapaksas in November.

To many Tamils, but especially to relatives of the disappeared who are actively engaged in campaigns of protests to locate their loved ones, Rajapaksa becoming president was the past casting its shadow on the present. It did not take long for Rajapaksa to prove the relatives of the disappeared correct. Senior navy personnel who were arrested by the last government for the abduction and disappearance of 11 boys in 2008/2009, were released by the judiciary on bail in January. This was the only abduction case that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government pursued with any vigour that saw arrests of senior military officers. Now that they are on bail, there is palpable fear they could intimidate witnesses and influence judicial decisions.

The Rajapaksa government spared no time in delivering another body blow to the ARED and relatives of the disappeared. In a statement in January following a meeting with the UN resident coordinator, the president’s office said, “The missing persons are actually dead. Most of them were forcefully taken by the LTTE or conscripted.” The statement went on to say that missing persons would be issued death certificates.

Public acknowledgement by a Sri Lankan political leader that the disappeared are dead is not novel. In 2016, then prime minister, Wickremesinghe said so too. But Rajapaksa’s statement sounds more authentic as he is seen as the architect of most disappearances. Tamils contend however that just because their relatives were abducted by the LTTE it did not mean they all disappeared. They were recruited but while serving in rebel ranks visited their families, were seen at checkpoints and mingled with the public. Until Mullivaikal, when they disappeared. Also, Rajapaksa’s explanation does not account for the Tamils who surrendered to the military in the final days of fighting in May 2009 and disappeared.

Relatives of the disappeared also say that the suggestion they accept death certificates is a signal by the regime that it wishes to wrap up the issue of disappearances that bedevils Colombo’s external relations. Relatives of the disappeared have long resisted accepting death certificates because it would be an acknowledgement their loved ones are dead. Moreover, the regime is not entitled to say the disappeared are dead and move on – disappearances must be investigated, the truth acknowledged, and perpetrators punished.

February 4: a day of mourning

The ARED statement puts this and other human rights abuses inflicted by the State in political terms. “Although it is said Sri Lanka became independent on 4 February 1948, for the Tamils there was only a change of hegemon and not independence. The slavery under the Sinhalese is worse than slavery under the British. The oppression and occupation that was occurring indirectly and imperceptibly are taking place openly and brazenly after the new government assumed office. That is why we the relatives of the disappeared reject celebrating Independence Day celebrations and commemorate it as a day of mourning.”

Another aspect of the protests on Independence Day which is a throwback to the past was how they sought to express dissent. Not only did ARED protest in Kilinochchi, but relatives of the disappeared and others held marches holding black flags in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Mullaitivu. Students of the University of Jaffna held a rally and festooned parts of the campus in black flags.

The display of black flags – especially at a public event – is a mark of non-violent dissent the world over. The Palestinians wave black flags protesting Israeli occupation and brutality; Indians in the Kashmir valley deplore New Delhi’s actions and policies. In Sri Lanka’s north and east, black flags made a major comeback after Mullivaiykal.

Soon after Sri Lanka’s independence and up to the 1970s, black flag protests by Tamils against Colombo’s policies and actions were common. Among the better known are the Federal Party’s resistance to the Language Bill in 1956 to make Sinhala the country’s sole official language when hoodlums, instigated by politicians, attacked non-violent protesters in downtown Colombo. Another instance is the 1961 Satyagraha in Jaffna. There were numerous smaller protests such as the demonstration that followed the police attack on civilians during the 1974 IATR conference.

Non-violent protests of the 1950s, 60s and 70s expressed frustration and outrage of both Tamil elected representatives and those they represented against State policies. But dissenters demanded reform of the State’s language policies, power-sharing arrangements, police brutality and after the 1972 First Republican Constitution, special protection afforded Buddhism. The reason black flag-holding non-violent protests receded as a form of resistance was because by the late 1970s, Tamil youth, recognising that non-violence was not working, switched to an armed struggle as the main expression of resistance. And red and gold buntings replaced black flags.

However, while black flag-waving protests in 2020 showed how circumstances can revive and refashion the politics of the past, it also showed how they rejected what was antiquated and irrelevant.

While relatives of the disappeared and other survivors of human rights violations demonstrated with black flags against an oppressive and violent State, some Sri Lankans were raising their voices in harmony – to sing the country’s national anthem in Tamil.

A majoritarian victory

Following the formation of the NUG in 2015, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in parliament, was seized by a paroxysm of patriotic fervour to demonstrate to reluctant Sinhalese that Tamils harboured no secessionist ideas. While this objective was not far from the TNA’s thinking throughout the five years the NUG was in office, never was it so obviously in display than at Independence Day celebrations. Waving the Sri Lankan flag that Tamils deride as depicting an oppressive State, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan would sit during Independence Day military parades in the VIP tent, and watch those who killed, disappeared, tortured and raped the people he claimed to lead, march triumphally past.

In what seemed a reciprocal gesture of reacceptance of Tamils into the Sri Lankan fold, the NUG leadership agreed to sing Sri Lanka’s national anthem in Tamil at the main Independence Day celebrations in Colombo. Although the national anthem was sung in Tamil from the 1950s in most parts of the north and east and Tamil-majority schools, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government had sought to unofficially discourage its singing in Tamil. This followed opposition to a cabinet paper in December 2010 to officially ban its singing.

Come 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa who said, “I knew I could win with only the Sinhala majority. But I asked the Tamils and Muslims to be part of my success. Their response was not one I expected. But I urge them to join me to build one Sri Lanka” on the day of his inauguration as president, insisted that the national anthem on Independence Day would only be sung in Sinhala.

There was misgiving among some Tamils and their Sinhala and Muslim supporters, but to no avail. In protest a group of Colombo-based civil society activists with their camp followers from the north and east sang the national anthem in Colombo, both in Sinhala and Tamil.

The government declining to sing the national anthem in Tamil on Independence Day was a matter of significance to those who believed singing it symbolised post war reconciliation. But Colombo’s decision did not trouble most Tamils living in north and east. There were no mass or vocal protests about it. And understandably. After a 30-year civil war in which 100,000 people died, to Tamils who bore the brunt of Sinhala racism and military brutality as the relatives of the disappeared did, singing the national anthem in Tamil did not mean anything but papering over the schisms that divide Tamils and Sinhalese and forcing them to belong to something they abhorred. In their minds, the first step Colombo could take to restore trust and begin reconciliation was to start looking for their loved ones.

The substantive part of ARED’s press statement is devoted to denouncing Tamil political leadership and its cynical tactics to remain in power by toadying Sinhalese-run governments. “While forging a relationship with the Sinhala leadership indirectly [during the civil war], following 2009 when fighting ended, they began openly liaising with the government and backing it to continue their selfish political designs. Some of their fellow travellers left due to problems over [parliamentary] seat allocations, but without stating this truth, they cite reasons such ideology, nationalism and racial emancipation... In their overwhelming desire to capture seats in parliament, they are instigating the people by uttering rousing words.”

This stinging rebuke of Tamil parliamentary politics too harks to past. The TNA was formed in October 2001 because despite the civil war’s immense toll on Tamil civilian life, society and property, Tamil political parties continued to jockey for power as conventional parties do. Due to their sub-par performance in the October 2000 elections certain Tamil elites brokered talks for the formation of an alliance of four parties. Following that, the LTTE, which was contemplating negotiations with President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government and preferred a political environment it could influence rather than have Tamil parties playing fast and loose, brought the TNA under its control.

Self serving politics

As ARED says, it was scrutiny they came under that compelled Tamil parliamentarians to forge “indirect” links with Sinhala leaders during the civil war. But as the war came to an end, the Tamil parties were unshackled and resumed openly manoeuvring for power with Sinhala political parties while disregarding the struggles of victims of human rights abuse.

But having said that about the TNA’s past, the way ARED has positioned itself in the statement is as a civil society organisation and pressure group that understands its power and the role it is going to play in the future. In the past, Tamil parliamentarians have seen themselves as kings with almost a divine right to rule, except when questioned on few instances. To address TNA’s self-serving politics in such an abrasive style not only shows the ARED’s disgust but its self-confidence to take on the political establishment.

The press statement continues challenging the political establishment: “Because elections are due, a new association, which does not have victims as its members, has been formed in the name our organisation – the ‘Association of the Disappeared North East Provinces’ – so that our aims are curbed, and by showing that they are handling the affairs of the disappeared, at least win one seat in parliament… What is more, last month they sent a report to Geneva raising suspicions of the UN Human Rights Council and thereby denigrating the entire struggle for the disappeared…”

The reference is to a Tamil political party that is setting up shadow associations of the disappeared in the districts of the north and east. This has caused friction between rival bodies as to who has more influence over relatives of the disappeared, which in turn translates into political clout to “win at least one seat in parliament.”

After recording ARED’s experience of working for disappeared families from 2017 in all eight districts in Northern Eastern provinces, its non-partisanship and role in speaking up for justice the press statement makes a plea: that the public identifies those who were exploiting victims for their selfish political ends and give a fitting reply at the correct time.

In its final appeal to Tamil parliamentarians ARED requests they cease working for selfish ends and stop betraying Tamils and the disappeared and work in unison for their release. “But those who cannot do this, we request that you “step aside with magnanimity for the youth and those imbued with a spirit of sacrifice for the people.”

The statement does not explicitly state why they should step aside. But it is obvious. It is for political leadership of the Tamils. In that assertion the ARED press statement is not about the past. It is about the future. Up till now, Tamil political leadership has been either by professional politicians, ex-guerrillas turned politicians, or the LTTE, which led by creating institutions that were alternatives to those of the Sri Lankan State. ARED’s is a veiled but bold challenge. Let’s see who picks up the gauntlet.


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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.