Interview: In pursuit of the truth - enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, families of the victims of enforced disappearances continue their pursuit of the truth. Read the interview where Head of Human Rights Office, Kandy, Father Nandana Manatunga, speaks about this issue.

The violation of enforced disappearances goes beyond the end of active conflict and is carried on in the hearts and minds of the family members and friends of the disappeared. The social consequences of enforced disappearances impact the fabric of society as it shifts traditional household roles, and society, in turn, must make the necessary shifts to support those fundamental changes. The collective grief, pursuit of truth and justice, and the social impacts on families and society require direct attention and a process for truth and reconciliation where the families can heard and justice can prevail.

In Sri Lanka, families of the victims of enforced disappearances continue their pursuit of truth as the first form of justice they seek for their relatives who were disappeared during the J.V.P insurrection and during civil war. Their pursuits of truth, closure, and justice an essential part of the country’s healing process after nearly three decades of civil conflict.

Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups from 1983 to 2009. According to the UN, between 80 000 and 100 000 civilians were killed during this period, and between 60-100,000 people were disappeared – many have never returned. The civil war divided the country on ethnic and religious lines, affecting in particular the minority Tamil population

A significant part of the work with the families of the disappeared is to heal from the traumatic memories from seeing death and people being forcibly taken away. (...) HROK works to assist the families of the disappeared both of the south and of the north with psychological support: Personal counseling, group counseling, and family counseling." Father Nandana Manatunga, Head of Human Rights Office Kandy

Interview with Father Nandana Manatunga, head of HROK

One of the organizations supported by the NHRF in Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Office in Kandy (HROK), supports families of the disappeared and works together with them in their pursuit of truth and justice - among many other human rights issues they address.

The following is an edited- for length and cohesion – interview with Father Nandana Manatunga, head of the Human Rights Office, with the NHRF.

What is the main goal for your work on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka?

Our main goal is to get justice and redress for the victims of the disappeared. There has been no justice because they don’t know what happened to their loved ones. They don’t know the truth, but they know the perpetrators. Family members have not been given justice, and the present government totally denies that people were forcibly disappeared. The government promised us justice, but has not delivered. Even before 2009, there were more than 60,000 people disappeared during the J.V.P insurrection in the south.

The current president of Sri Lanka has stated that the victims are dead and treats the cases as if they all were the same – that everyone died during war. But the families and victims know the difference - those who died during the war and those who were forcefully taken and made to disappear. They were asked to surrender during the last phase of the civil war and many families still don’t know what happened to their relatives after they surrendered.

Based on your work and conversations with the families of the disappeared, what forms of justice are they seeking as they continue to bring light to the issues involved with disappearances?

They want to know the truth – to know what happened to those who surrendered and to those who were disappeared at other times during the war. Their families have not been able to do the final rites or burial for their lost loved ones, and this adds to their grief and pursuit of the truth.

What have been the most significant gains you’ve seen on this issue in the past years?

The previous regime established the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) in August 2016 as a method of ensuring transitional justice. The aim of the OMP was to locate the thousands of missing persons as part of Sri Lanka’s commitment to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights” under Resolution 30/1. Notwithstanding these promises and the OMP’s mandate, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and appointed very good commissioners. However, this institution is no longer functioning under the present current regime.

On New Year’s Day 2020, families of the disappeared marked 1414 days of protest, demanding an international investigation into the whereabouts of their loved ones. 78 parents of the disappeared have died since the protests began without knowing the fate of their loved ones.

What are the most significant challenges you’re facing now and how have they shaped with new leadership since 2019?

The government's denial on the topic of enforced disappearances - they don’t want anyone to speak about the disappearances. In the north of Sri Lanka, families of the disappeared are closely monitored and not allowed to campaign. The Sri Lankan government has been using COVID-19 restrictions to control the people, and all the power has been given to the military and police. Therefore, the families of the disappeared find it difficult to come together and engage on the topic.

See HROK's video "Keep alive the memories of the enforced disappeared - Let it not happen again" here:

What are other important aspects to this work that you think should be shared and given more attention?

A significant part of the work with the families of the disappeared is to heal from the traumatic memories from seeing death and people being forcibly taken away. For example, if a man disappears, his wife becomes the breadwinner of the family. But if she’s traumatized from the incident, she might struggle to be able to work, which again will affect her whole family. Some of the people we work with have also been in prisons and official or unofficial detention centers and have been subjected to torture and lost their memory. For some of them, they don’t even remember that their family members were forcibly taken away.

HROK works to assist the families of the disappeared both of the south and of the north with psychological support: Personal counseling, group counseling, and family counseling. Many don’t want to believe that their family members are dead and expected them to return, but reluctantly, they have to admit that they are dead or that they will not come back. The disappeared families in the south have now admitted that they would not come back but the families in the north , for them it's difficult to accept.

Families of the disappeared have tried to do as much as possible legally – presenting army officials who were responsible for some of these atrocities and murders to the court, for example. But the perpetrators continue to live and be active in the government or military, and some have even been labeled as “war heroes” by the government. Presidential pardons have also been given to officials who were convicted during the last regime.

Why did you get involved in the issue?

During the J.V.P. insurrection in the south, in 1989-1990, I went to different camps and police stations in the south of Sri Lanka to search for missing people and every day I saw so many bodies along the roadside and in the river. When the same thing started happening in the north of Sri Lanka, I realized that if the government could kill members of the majority Sinhala population in the south, they would do worse things to the minority Tamil population in the north. Many families of the disappeared – both in the north and south of our country search for their missing relatives. Every year, we bring the groups from the north to the south for an exchange program, so that they can learn from each other about their shared issues of sufferings and to help them better understand each other.


Read more about Father Nandana's and HROK's work on their website.

All photos are provided by HROK.


Did you know....

Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of enforced disappearances, with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 disappearances since the late 1980s. The authorities have also failed to protect witnesses and families seeking truth and justice, and failed to prosecute those suspected of criminal responsibility. Read more in this Amnesty report from 2020.