SRI LANKA: Enforced disappearances embedded into the political culture make Sri Lanka an unjust republic (Part One) 

Forced disappearances have left quite an impression on the psyche of the Sri Lankan people living in all parts of the country. Since 1971, there has been continuous use of enforced disappearances as a tool by the state, for what they referred to as the maintenance of “law and order”. The result is a negative mindset, arising from what the people have seen and heard over several decades, due to so many incidents and stories about enforced disappearances. The shocking news has obviously been borne deep into the psyche of the people of all the people, living in all parts of the country.

Such deep impressions alter the views of people on many issues. One of the great changes in the minds of people, due to the impressions that are left in their minds of enforced disappearances, is to change their ideas about all those in authority; about the police, the military, the intelligence services and also the political leaders. The people now in their inner minds have different ideas as to what these things meant in the past before these large scale enforced disappearances happened.

Today, the police and the military are often seen by the people as abductors who may come in any guise, at any time. What the people expect from the police, the military or anyone else who represents a lawful authority and exercises such things as arrests has undergone a fundamentally deep change. The expectation of what might happen in the event of abduction or arrest is now very different. People have lost the legitimate expectation that they might have in the event of dealing with their law enforcement agencies; the expectation that whatever happens will be within the limits of the law and rationality no longer exists. Now the expectation is that the law will be flouted, that anything might happen, and that if anyone were to come out of the situation safe and sound it would his or her great luck.

The other agencies about which the people’s views and expectations have changed are the intelligence agencies. The idea that the intelligence agencies may be involved in activities concerning the security of the state, within the limits that are expected in such operations, has altered a great deal. The expectation that any kind of foul play is possible, and that there may be many schemes to put unsuspecting citizens into all kinds of trouble, has become quite normal. That there may be all kinds of games, including arrest and detention for illicit money-making by way of demands for bribes, and the fear that if these things are not complied with one may come to a different kind of experience that cannot even be imagined, is today among the normal, or let us say, abnormal expectation of the people – not only of the poorer classes, but also of other social groups.

All such alterations of opinions and expectations are not from wild imaginations but on the basis of detailed incidents that they know have happened to many people in their societies. Some of those people may have been family members or friends or known to them in other ways, but on many occasions these stories are part of a general knowledge about the practice of enforced disappearances, by the repeated telling of the stories of these incidents, mostly about persons with whom they may not have been personally acquainted.

The general knowledge of security in the country has undergone fundamental changes. And the subsequent psychological habits, which have now become part of the ordinary persons psyche, can be easily manipulated by any unscrupulous person. That unscrupulous person might be someone holding authority in the government who wishes to manipulate this psychological condition for political purposes, such as through attempts to intimidate people who have different political allegiances or hold different opinions. It could also be manipulated by rivals in businesses.

Anyone in competition with another for one reason or another, as is usual in normal society, might now fear that a rival might use foul methods in association with those who have the power of arrest and detention in order to take undue advantage and to promote their interest over another by illegitimate means.

More than anyone else, this psychological condition can be exploited by the criminal elements, who are often better readers of the minds of people in their society than others. They can manipulate this condition to achieve various criminal enterprises for their own benefit or for others. It is within that context that the behaviour of the government on the issue of enforced disappearances should be reviewed.

The government adamantly refuses to conduct any kind of proper legal inquiries into allegations of abductions and enforced disappearances. Many of the glaring examples are part of the peoples’ experiences. The case of Prageeth Eknaligoda naturally comes to mind. The manner in which that disappearance took place, the various methodologies that were employed by the government to deny any kind of inquiry into the matter, and also other methodologies they employed to deny their responsibilities, is now firmly registered in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people. That even a former Attorney General speaking at a United Nations body in his official capacity could blatantly lie about the Prageeth Eknaligoda incident became a well-known tale about how someone in authority can be so blatantly abusive. Even journalists working for well-known newspapers were used in order to create all kinds of stories, such as the story that Prageeth Eknaligoda had taken up refugee status in some other country. They were used so cynically in order to manipulate a society that was aware of this incident and interested to know what was happening. Such levels of manipulation, including all kinds of statements made by the government spokesmen, are also part of the knowledge that the people acquired about how things happen in their society.

Perhaps the worst part of the impression is about the futility of any attempt to seek justice for enforced disappearances. Tale after tale, going into tens of thousands of cases, tell the same story, of the complete incapacity of the legal system in Sri Lanka, which has been crippled to such an extent that it is incapable of providing any kind of assistance to those in search of their loved ones who have been victims of enforced disappearances. In this, Sri Lanka repeats the experience of other countries, when the state itself is the agency that plays a prominent role in enforced disappearances. The following poem tells of the tragedy of so many mothers and others who are faced with the disappearances of their sons or other loved ones, and whose demands to the systems of justice are so blatantly frustrated.

She goes looking for you

We go
Looking for you.
To be accurate,
She goes
Looking for you.
To be accurate,
She goes looking
For your bones
Or for something that is yours:
A hair or a piece of cloth.

We are just the sub-committee
Helping her
To find you.
We go to an abandoned house,
In an abandoned field,
And the area opposite
We have forensics
Helping the sub-committee.
Everyone is looking
For a piece of you.

Forensics find near
The rubbish burning spot
Two piles of bones.
We think
We found you.
Forensics say
Its human bones.
We think
We found you.

The journey is yet long,
Spread through fields
Through many more bones,
Through laboratories,
Through jurists,
Through judges,
Who must finally believe
That it is you.
She will go on that journey
We wish to be with her also
Till she finds you.

In the next part of this article, I will discuss the impact of enforced disappearances on trade and commerce in Sri Lanka.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-081-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions,