“Where are they?” and Gotabaya Rajapaksa glibly deny the surrender of hundreds of people before hundreds of witnesses?

Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu correspondent in Sri Lanka, at the first press conference with Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked him what happened to the LTTE cadres and others who surrendered to the army during the last days of war, and who have thereafter disappeared (see full interview here). She raised it in the context of a series of questions posed by the journalists who spoke before her on accountability for war-related human rights abuses and the fate of UN Resolutions co-sponsored by the present government since 2015, in case candidate Rajapaksa is elected as President. In response to those questions, candidate Rajapaksa after some obfuscation and back and forth, stated that there are more important concerns for people in the north and east like jobs and education. As a follow up to this response, Meera stated that even as people are concerned about jobs and education, they also want to know what happened to the people who surrendered and never returned and since he was at the helm of the army he should have an answer.

“Where are they?” she asked. Candidate Rajapaksa’s response is instructive. First he stated that he did not lead the army. The army was led by the army commander. (This is of course ironic, for the Rajapaksa’s have never been shy to take credit for the defeat of the LTTE and the war victory). When Meera persists that he was the Secretary of Defence, he stated that all those who surrendered, 13784 persons in all, were rehabilitated and reintegrated in what is considered the most successful of such programmes in the world.

He also made the point that often it is impossible to recover the bodies of soldiers who die in battle and they tend to be considered as missing. He went on to state, that more than 4000 Sri Lankan officers and soldiers are missing as a result.

Meera then rightly pointed out that some of those who surrendered are not part of those who were rehabilitated and in fact never returned to their families. She asked, “Are they lying?” The exchange between candidate Rajapaksa then continues as follows:

GR: Somebody can say that. But that is only an allegation. We have inquired on this we had a commission on this, but nobody has said that they have handed over such and such person, on such and such a date, to such and such a person. There were no cases like that.

Meera: But even the Paranagama Commission in your time, they did give the date of surrendering.

GR: No. I don’t think so.

I begin with this vignette to help us think about truth, lies and obfuscations on this question of the surrendees, after the war. In the 10 years since the end of the war, hundreds of Tamils, mostly women have testified to the fact that during the last days of the war, that is on 17th and 18th of May 2009, Sri Lankan security forces made public announcements calling all LTTE cadres to surrender, with a promise to grant a general amnesty to those who did. In these announcements, it was stated that those who served in the LTTE for even one day should surrender into Army custody.

As a consequence, hundreds of LTTE cadres including a few high level political and military officers of the LTTE surrendered to the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan Army. (This is quite apart from the white flag incident). According to the testimony given by a number of women, Father Francis Joseph and three other priests facilitated the surrender, as they spoke fluent English and could communicate with the Army. Army officers separated those who surrendered into a separate line, while their families were asked to join a civilian queue.

In some cases, however, wives and children also surrendered together with the LTTE cadres. Take the case of Parvati (I have changed her name) from Kilinochchi whose daughter, son in law and two grandchildren aged two and four surrendered to the army in front of her own eyes. She has not seen them since.

According to eye witness testimony, the Army took all those who surrendered into an enclosure fortified by barbed wire. Their families could see them from a short distance away. Their families and acquaintances witnessed the missing persons board Ceylon Transport Board buses, as directed by the Army. Army personnel told the families that the missing persons would be taken for questioning and would reunite in an IDP camp. However, in each case, this was the last the families saw of these family members. To be clear then, these women are not speaking of LTTE combatants who died in battle and whose bodies could not be recovered. They are speaking of persons who were very much alive at the end of the war and who surrendered themselves to the army in trust.

Since then, the women family members of the surrendees have been ceaselessly searching for their loved ones. They have attempted to make complaints to the police and been turned away. They have petitioned whoever else they thought might be able to help – politicians, administrative officials, civil servants, ambassadors, wives of politicians, international NGOs, and United Nations agencies, while physically searching for their disappeared family members in army camps, police stations, hospitals, and jails across the country. They have travelled miles and spent exorbitant sums of money in order to continue searching, often pawning family jewellery and taking loans at massive interest rates. In the process they have invited scrutiny, surveillance and sexual harassment from an array of public officials.

In a media interview, Parvati refers to her grandchildren as “flowering buds” and that she has to believe that they are still alive. “That is what keeps me going. Otherwise, I would kill myself”. A few have also filed habeas corpus applications but to no avail. In a decision given by the Magistrate Court in Mullaitivu, in respect of one of these applications, the court held that the woman was unable to give concrete evidence relating to the type of bus and the number of the bus in which those who surrendered were taken away. In the end, it was a matter of her word against the words of denial of the army. And the army won, despite the fact that the woman’s testimony was corroborated by others.

Eye witness testimony in relation to the surrender and disappearance which first emerged in trickles from sites in the north and east has thickly accumulated since then. Evidence that some LTTE cadres who surrendered to the army during the last days of the war have disappeared without a trace, first emerged through testimonies before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The LLRC in its final report documents 45 persons who gave testimony of a family member surrendering to the army and who thereafter disappeared, while also quoting from the testimonies of a number of them (see for instance para 4. 245 to Para 4. 248). On the question of surrendees, the LLRC states:

The Commission must emphasize that in respect of the representations .. . from a number of people who stated that they had directly witnessed certain persons surrendering to the custody of the Army, it is the clear duty of the State to cause necessary investigations into such specific allegations and where such investigations produce evidence of any unlawful act on the part of individual members of the Army, to prosecute and punish the wrongdoers. The Commission must also stress in this regard that if a case is established of a disappearance after surrender to official custody, this would constitute an offence entailing penal consequences. Thus the launching of a full investigation into these incidents and where necessary instituting prosecutions is an imperative also to clear the good name of the Army who have by and large conducted themselves in an exemplary manner in the surrender process and when civilians were crossing over to cleared areas, which conduct should not be tarnished by the actions of a few.

The Paranagama Commission appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013, also acknowledged the disappearance of busloads of persons who surrendered in the last days of conflict, including one such busload which was accompanied by a Catholic Priest by the name of Father Francis (The second mandate report of the Paranagama Commission, p.xxvi). The Commission states that it heard first-hand testimony from approximately 100 such persons, and that this matter should be the subject of an independent judicial inquiry. It goes on to state:

There are credible allegations, which if proved to the required standard, may show that some members of the armed forces committed acts during the final phase of the war that amounted to war crimes giving rise to individual criminal responsibility” (p.xxv).

Elsewhere, the Commission further states that: “a judge-led investigation into this incident is necessary and that the Commission has “made a finding that there is a reasonable basis to believe, having heard evidence on this issue, that these individuals may have been executed”. (para 437, p. 105). Citing the testimony of several persons as instances of disappearances where there is clear evidence of individuals passing into the hands of the Sri Lanka Army, the Commission states that written requests to the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice to ascertain the names of persons who were in custody, in prisons, in detention camps, in refugee camps and in rehabilitation centres were NOT complied with. The commission goes on to state that while “it is quite possible that persons who had been in custody went abroad upon their release, without the knowledge of their families, or alternatively went underground, or changed their identities, the truth must be ascertained as regards the fate of the majority of those disappeared persons whose fates are hitherto unknown. This,  . . . is a vital contribution to reconciliation” (para 449, p. 108).

When candidate Rajapaksa says that the Paranagama Commission made no reference to surrendees, who have since gone missing, is he lying or is he unaware of the contents of the Paranagama Commission report?

Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist has pointed out that this is a mass disappearance involving several hundred people. He had stated: “They have simply vanished in the custody of the army. Not just vanished but vanished in the custody of the army. It’s an absurd situation for an army of a country to take away its citizens in buses in front of their family members and then claim that it never happened”.

Indeed, this story of the surrender and disappearance that has slowly but surely emerged from the hundreds of written and oral testimonies given before multiple judicial and quasi-judicial forums would amount to a scandal in ordinary circumstances. Instead, the surrender remains insistently, infinitely, and perpetually deniable both inside and outside the courthouse – as an exaggeration or a conspiracy to discredit and take revenge on the military or a confusion, fantasy or lie dreamed up by Tamil women.

Candidate Rajapaksa can well look forward to a future in which he is elected as President and in which various crimes committed under his watch as Secretary of Defence has been erased. At some point in the press conference, he also states: “You are talking all the time about the past no. Ask the future. We are trying to become the president of the future”. For family members of those who surrendered, the past is their present and their future. They are still trying to find answers and closure all these years after the war. They are unable to mourn and unable to let go of hope until they know the truth. Many still live in hope that those who surrendered must be detained in a secret detention centre deep in the heart of the Sri Lankan state and that they might someday return. Until they do, as Meera Srinivasan did, we have to keep asking “Where are they?” And how is it possible to so easily, so glibly deny the surrender of hundreds of people before hundreds of witnesses?