President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent remarks that those reported missing from the time of the civil war were “actually dead” have sparked concern among families of disappeared persons.
Relatives, mostly women, of thousands reported missing have been protesting in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north and east for nearly three years now, demanding that authorities share the whereabouts of their children/husband, forcibly disappeared during the years of the brutal war between the State armed forces and the rebel LTTE.
“We cannot accept the new President’s remarks,” said Leelathevi Ananthanatarajah, secretary of the Association for the Relatives of the Enforced Disappearances in the North and East.
Missing after surrender
“My 34-year-old son surrendered to the Army at the Omanthai checkpoint, just after the war ended in May 2009. We were all there. They said they would question him and release him. I am still waiting,” she told The Hindu.
The lingering concern over enforced disappearances has remained a key issue in the decade after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, with affected families relentlessly demanding truth and accountability.
President Rajapaksa told the UN Resident Coordinator in a recent meeting that the missing persons were dead, adding that most were “taken by the LTTE or forcibly conscripted.”
Ms. Ananthanatarajah does not agree. “How can it be that those who surrendered to the Army were also killed by the LTTE? That too after they declared that the war had ended?” she asked.
Tweeting on the development, Tamil MP M.A. Sumanthiran said: “President @GotabayaR seems to know that even those who were surrendered to the military AFTER the war ended have died! He should publicly say HOW those 3,000 odd people (as revealed in the #LLRC Report) died. #accountability #UNHRC #lka Tamil”. The Jaffna legislator was referring to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a panel set up by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010.
Another activist based in the eastern Amparai district, whose husband surrendered in 2009, said the President’s remarks will not stop those like her from protesting. “They cannot issue a death certificate, give us some money and think we will stop. Our protest is about the truth and justice. We will agitate until we get the answers,” said the woman activist, requesting anonymity, as she “feared surveillance”.
Meanwhile, following media reports of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s remarks based on the official statement, the presidential media division — pointing to some media reports — clarified that the President did not mention a specific number of disappeared persons, in his conversation with the UN official. The President also said that after “necessary investigations”, steps would be taken to issue death certificates and provide support for the families, his office said in the latest statement.
Sri Lankan leaders and government bodies have referred to different figures, while speaking on the issue of disappearances. In 2016, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga —who was then heading the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation — told reporters various commissions since 1994 had documented that 65,000 people were “missing or not found to be dead”. This figure is said to include those who went missing during the southern JVP insurrections. The Office on Missing Persons, set up in 2018, said upto 20,000 people could be missing since 1983.
Families of missing persons have testified before multiple government commissions — set up by successive governments — and still await answers.