SRI LANKA: From Manorani Saravanamuttu to Sandya Eknaliyagoda – the cry of women on the forced disappearances of loved ones 

Basil Fernando

The voice of Manorani Saravanamuttu was heard loudly during the last decade of the twentieth century, protesting strongly against disappearances in Sri Lanka. The voice of Sandya Ekanaliyagoda is now heard on the same issue. Both voices are echoing the similar voices of tens of thousands of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of persons who have been forcibly disappeared, mostly by agents of the state.

All they have revealed speaks of a reality which speaks of the following components:

the making of selections for killings by agencies authorised by the state and carried out in secret;

the maintenance of units for meticulous planning of abductions in the place of arrests, and the detaining of persons that have no access to anyone other than these agencies;

detention and interrogation in secret where the use of torture are likely to happen; the execution of these persons in secret at the end of the interrogation; secret burials;

and a process of denial by these agencies as well as by the government and the creation of all kinds of stories in order to generate doubt about what actually happened to these people and the complete denial of all rights to these people.

The total process is the absolute denial of any kind of any form of the rule of law, due process and the right to information and justice. Forced disappearances are one of the meanest forms of dealing with an individual and also those who are their loved ones.

Richard Zoysa, the son of Manorani Saravanamuttu, disappeared on the 17th or 18th of February 1990. A few days later his body was washed up on the shore and was identified by his mother. There was much speculation of the probability that the body was taken by helicopter and dropped from a height in the hopes that it might become stuck in the mud and disappear altogether.

On recovering the body and commenting on the process of such a disappearance taking place during that time, Manorani Saravanamuttu made the following comments:

They come and knock at doors. Ring bells and they look at you, and frighten you, and threaten you?. If I had thought for one moment that they had come to take my son I would have died there at the door…..It the women who bear the brunt, and its the women who are the strong ones, because, when you lose a child you lose yourself ” (quoted from a video interview by Nimal Mendis)

“It is the most devastating experience to have a child pulled out of your arms. My boy ‘disappeared’ and 48 hours later his mutilated body was found. Since then I have received numerous threats, anonymous letters, telephone terror and I am also certain that my telephone is tapped. I want to pursue my son’s case. Many friends and colleagues have asked me to stop: “the one who seeks the battle should not complain about the wounds”. But I know there are tens of thousands of relatives who have been affected by the violence. I will never advise the women I work with to forget, I will tell them that they must speak. 20.000-30.000 did not join, out of fear of reprisals to other relatives”. (quoted from Linking Solidarity).

Sandya Ekanaliyagoda is the wife of a journalist who worked for Lanka E-News. In the last two months of 2009 and in early January he wrote several articles supporting the candidature of Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate for the joint opposition and opposed the incumbent president. He was warned by a friend that his name was found in a death list maintained by an agency of the government. He has been disappeared since the 24th January, two days before the election, and remains missing. His wife Sandya suspects no one but a government agency for the abduction and disappearance of her husband. She has made complaints to the police and also lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and complained to all other authorities in the government. Her voice has been given expression to by the Association of Journalists and the media as well as human rights organisations, not only in Sri Lanka but across the world.

The government reply is a blatant denial that they are involved in any way. On the other hand the government has not conducted any kind of credible investigation, but instead has propagated stories that perhaps he himself has gone away somewhere or that there is some personal matter involved in the disappearance. Government ministers are even involved in spreading these stories in an attempt to discredit her claims about her husband disappearance. Meanwhile the government has not carried out any of the functions that a government is under obligation to do under a system of rule of law and democracy in order to account for the disappearance of a person.

Once again the reality that Sandya Ekanaliyagoda is dealing with is the question of the complete denial of any kind of legality, recognition of rights, or the dealing of matters within a framework of the law. Here, a human individual, a woman is facing the total absence of accountability from the government and in their dealings with her the state denies any kind of legal obligation. Here, a woman, a part of the community, is treated as a complete outsider to the community and a complete outsider to fundamental web that binds that society which is certain rules and norms which are expressed by the way of the law. In this situation the law does not exist. When the state itself deals with an individual, a woman, in a way which defies every principle of the law, then how does the conception of any kind of rights exist. In this situation we have the total denial of rights and any kind of respect for rights. 

Both Manorani Saravanamuttu and Sandya Ekanaliyagoda and tens of thousands of other women are raising questions of such fundamental nature. As to what being a human person means in the absence of the total lack of respect for the rule of law, and what human dignity means in the absence of any kind of legal obligation by the state is the question. The voices of these women must be heard if society is to give any meaning to its conceptions of the rule of law, democracy, human rights and any kind of human decency.

Manorani Saravanamuttu and Sandya Ekanaliyagoda are symbols of women crying in the deepest wilderness asking questions that no decent society can avoid answering.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-020-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Freedom of expression, Torture,