The cry of women against disappearances of loved ones: From Manorani Saravanamuttu to Sandya Ekanaliyagoda

(Edited text of an article issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission: AHRC-ART-020-2010)

Basil Fernando

The voice of Manorani Saravanamuttu was heard loudly during the last decade of the 20th century, protesting strongly against disappearances in Sri Lanka. The voice of Sandya Ekanaliyagoda is now heard on the same issue. Both voices are echoing voices of tens of thousands of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of persons who have been forcibly disappeared, mostly by state agents.

Their voice reveals a reality made up of the following components:

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

The maintenance of units for the meticulous planning of abductions instead of arrests, and the detaining of persons who then have no access to anyone other than these agencies;

Secret detention and interrogation where the use of torture is likely;

The secret execution of these persons at the end of the interrogation, followed by secret burials; and

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

Forced disappearances are one of the cruelest ways to deal with individuals and their loved ones. They represent the absolute denial of rule of law, due process and the right to information and justice.

Richard Zoysa, Manorani Saravanamuttu’s son, disappeared on the 17th or 18th of February 1990. A few days later his body was washed up on the shore and identified by her. It was widely speculated 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, 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’s the women who bear the brunt, and it’s 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” [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 2010 he wrote several articles supporting the candidature of Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate for the joint opposition and opposing the incumbent president. He was warned by a friend that his name was found on a government agency’s death list. He has been disappeared since January 24, two days before the election, and remains missing. Sandya suspects the government for her husband’s abduction and disappearance. She has made complaints to the police as well as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and other government authorities. Her voice has been given expression to by the Association of Journalists and the media as well as human rights organizations, not only in Sri Lanka but across the world.

The government’s reply is a blatant denial that they are involved in any way. It has not conducted any kind of credible investigation, but instead has propagated stories that perhaps Sarath has gone away somewhere by himself, or that there is some personal matter involved in the disappearance. Even government ministers are involved in spreading these stories to discredit Sandya’s claims of her husband’s disappearance.

Once again, the reality that Sandya Ekanaliyagoda is dealing with is the complete denial of legality, recognition of rights, or due process. Here, an individual, a woman, is facing the total absence of accountability from the government, as well as any legal obligation. Here, a woman, a part of the community, is treated as a complete outsider to the community. When the state deals with an individual in a way that defies every legal principle, how can the concept of human rights exist?

Manorani Saravanamuttu, Sandya Ekanaliyagoda and many other women are raising such fundamental questions, are wondering what it means to be a human being in the total absence of any respect for the rule of law; what human dignity means in the absence of any legal obligation by the state. The voices of these women must be heard if society is to give meaning to its conceptions of the rule of law, democracy, human rights and decency.

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