The Disappeared in Sri Lanka’s War in the Recent Past: What is missing in those “Missing”?

IRIN has recently highlighted the fact that “thousands of people are still missing” in Sri Lanka and presented an UNOHCR report that states that there are “5,671 reported cases of wartime-related disappearance in Sri Lanka” – even without taking note of the numbers that went missing in the final stages of the war in 2008/09.[i] In effect the statement implies that the figure for the DISAPPEARED could even spill over the five figure mark of 10,000.



Presented at this stage of a propaganda war involving a combination of Tamil activists and Rajapaksa-haters vociferously accusing the government of genocide and extra-judicial killings the implication of such single-track news items are several. They imply, or can be read to imply, that the government is responsible for MOST of the disappearances. This was the implication when news agencies eagerly pounced on Saroja Devi’s allegation that her son had disappeared[ii] after he was one of those ex-Tigers’ released following a government tamasha (a claim she was good enough to retract when the Commissioner of Rehabilitation showed her a video of the event which corrected her (mis)-reading of a newsprint image).[iii]

In educated surmise there is little doubt that shadowy government agencies and/or Tamil paramilitary allies of the government and/or outsourced criminal gangs have been the instruments who indulged in a dirty war in 2006-09 which eradicated a number of Tamils and a few journalists who were deemed “subversives;” while in the past year there have been another clutch of allegations regarding such activity that seem to have substance.[iv] The “white van” phenomenon marking extra-judicial killings or abductions for ransom is certainly a feature of Sri Lankan politics and society that is a serious concern.

The first question, then, is for those civil right activists who have kept track of this sphere ‘underground warfare’ to present an approximate figure of those political activists (as distinct from ransom victims and gangsters) eliminated by extra-judicial action of the white van type or through outright assassination between 2006 and 2012.[v] Such a statistic is relevant as we ponder the IRIN news item.

We also know that when reporters and NGO personnel retail such items on the large numbers of “disappeared,” they garner for themselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the badge of “good guys” pursuing an ethical cause. Working as a gadfly against this grain, what I wish to emphasise is the character of war in general and the specifics of the Eelam Wars which have not been placed on the board as one facet of this topic. In other words I am asking “what is missing in this figure of those missing?” What aspects of the total context have been elided out because of a single track approach which carries sensationalist dimensions?

I wonder at times whether city-bred reporters and intellectuals have any awareness, however vicarious, of the character of fighting on land and whether their cloistered circumstances perpetuate tunnel-vision. The fact is that any extended period of warfare, especially in jungle tropical terrain, results in a substantial number of soldiers disappearing — that is, they become a part of that sombre anonymous statistic “missing in action.”

The number of Sri Lankan Army soldiers missing in action during Eelam Wars II and III would be substantial; and perhaps so embarrassing that one may find it difficult to extract figures from official sources.[vi] This figure would be less in Eelam War IV because the SL Army was mostly on the offensive. The LTTE would not have been immune from this process, especially during Eelam War IV so that some of the IRIN figures would encompass Tiger personnel who are missing in action.

The IRIN figures above can be supplemented by those collected by the Department of Statistics in mid-2011 with the help of Tamil officials in the northern districts.[vii] They computed that

  • “6350 people went missing” in 2009.
  • “6858 people were killed in the first five months of 2009.”

These statistics are barebones without adequate amplification and do not indicate whether Tiger personnel were included within their ambit. The fact remains that many Tigers, especially new conscripts, were not wearing fatigues. It would not have, therefore, been feasible for those giving testimony to distinguish in all instances which corpse was Tiger and which not. That note applies only to corpses that were found and buried.

The caveat in the last line is essential because one must allow for the considerable number of Tigers and civilians who died in the scrub jungle as a result of enemy fire or snake bite and whose bodies were left behind in the course of the retreat that took place between mid-2008 to May 2009. In short, a certain proportion of the “missing” have just returned to the soil so to speak, or become part of the nutrients servicing monitor lizards, jackals and termites.[viii] War is raw and our vocabulary must be raw.

One of the few commentators to face this awful scenario full frontal has been Rajasingham Narendran. In a blog comment arising from one of my essays directed at Rohan Gunaratna, he observed

in the Vanni in the period around April’ 2009, when the summer is at its hottest, bodies would have decomposed faster. the older and the obese bodies would have deteriorated faster than those of the younger and thinner ones. Being largely an area that is in proximity to jungles and teaming with wild animals of all sorts, most of the dead would have been partially or totally consumed by wild animals. Flies and maggots would have accelerated the decay.(dated 24 Nov 2011).

When one Siva Sankaran confidently asserted that the army “meticulously” enumerated bodies, Narendran replied thus:

From all accounts, it was impossible to differentiate between combatants, civilian conscripts and ordinary civilians. The combatants were also in civilian clothes. Further, a proportion of the dead where possible and when safe, were buried in shallow graves by those known to them. Some died in bunkers and were probably covered over. There were children who died after a prolonged stay in bunkers. They had been hidden to escape conscription. Everyone, including the soldiers, [was] amidst unbelievable confusion. No one knew what was going to happen next. It is thus unrealistic to expect that the priority was to count the dead and categorize them. It was largely each one for himself in a desperate situation.

Apart from the Tamils who died and disappeared in this manner, either in action or during the course of the mass retreat through scrub jungle, we must also take account of the Tamils whom the LTTE killed. This statistic would include (a) those shot as they tried to break free from the hostage situation they had been placed in;[ix] as well as (b) the Tamil dissidents and prisoners whom the LTTE executed as they became a burden on their resources.

The UTHR has indicated that 140 prisoners (mostly Tamil) were killed on Pottu Amman’s orders on 8th February 2009,[x] but we will never know how many Tamil civilians (and even fighters) were killed by the Tigers as they tried to ‘abandon ship’.[xi] It is likely that the figure exceeds one thousand, but that is a guestimate.

As it is, we know now that a significant number of the 286,000 or so Tamils placed in detention centres in Menik Farm and elsewhere in April-May 2009 slipped out of the camps. Darshan Ambalavanar informed me that it was possible to buy to one’s way out and that the process had the characteristic of “package tours” – so much to get to Colombo, so much to get to India etc.[xii] Grapevine information suggests that a couple of Ministers were part of this racket.

Among those who took this route was the Tamil professional who surfaced as Muthu Kumaran in Australia,[xiii] almost certainly the expat LTTE functionary and engineer we know as Arunachalam Jegapheeswaran alias Jegan Waran.[xiv] For our interests here what matters is the number who got away from the detention centres in various ways. Gross estimates vary from 2,000 to 10,000.[xv] The attendant question then is: how many of these people, now abroad for the most part, have been counted among the disappeared? The question is rhetorical. We will never know.

Such numbers and the murky picture relating to many central questions provide a contextual perspective of relativity on the numbers who have gone missing because of extra-judicial killings by outfits linked to the government. Such statistical proportionality, of course, does not serve as a justification for the killings and abductions.

In sum, then, anyone who concentrates on the DISAPPEARED as an item of news or advocacy must elucidate the context and bring the many paths of disappearance into the purview of readers. Advocacy and news must be as rounded as grounded, that is, grounded rounded. If not, it is incomplete and partisan biased, even if unintentionally so.



Jeyaraj, DBS 2007 “An Overview of the “Enforced Disappearances” Phenomenon,”

Sunday Leader 2012 “Disappearances in Massive Scale during 2006–2009,”

GV-HRW List 2012 [Disappearances …],

US Department of State 2009 Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka.

Watchdog 2012a “New wave of abductions and dead bodies in Sri Lanka,” 26 Feb, 2012,

Watchdog 2012b “Horrible rise of disappearances in post-war Sri Lanka continues unabated,” 5 Apr, 2012,

Weliamuna, JC 2012Discovering the White Van in a Troubled Democracy: An analysis of ongoing “abduction blueprint” in Sri Lanka,” 28 April 2012,




[iv] AND AND

[v] Partial figures are available in the citations in fn. 4 above and in the following: Jeyaraj 2007 at and GV-HRW at

[vi] My preliminary stab through Google and within the Ministry of Defence web site produced no findings, but that maybe due to my own shortcomings in cyber trawling.

[vii] AND

[viii] AND

[ix] That this occurred on several occasions has been noted by several sources that are hostile towards the SL government –for e.g the UTHR Report No.34; Gordon Weiss in The Cage.

[x] Section 2:5 in UTHR No 34 —

[xi] For illustrations, see US Department of State, 2009, 16 & 18 April 2009.

[xii] Ambalavanar was not in Lanka in 2 mid 2009 but became involved in welfare activity from a base in Batticaloa towards the end of the year and got to know a great deal about circumstances in the north during his work-visits to the area. We met in late 2009.



[xv] See Serge de Silva Ranasinghe’s interviews with T. Sridharan, D. Siddharthan and Fr Rohan Silva — AND AND


Michael Roberts


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