Opening Pandora’s Box

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Leave aside the political reasons, if any, behind the need for the current proclamation of Emergency across the country, it is a sad reminder that the worst may not as yet be over on the ‘ethnic’ front, close to a decade after the exit of the LTTE. Replacing the term ‘ethnic’ with ‘racial’ may help pinpoint the cause for the current disturbances more precisely, yes, but the larger issues that they all together have thrown up is a sad return to the nation’s forgettable past.

It is not just about Tamil rights and/or LTTE terrorism. It is not even about Muslims’ security and a sense of security that the community is slowly but surely losing over the past two or more decades simultaneously. If anything, it all had begun with the militant JVP brand of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the 1987-89 period. At the time, the outfit had moved farther away from ‘ideological attack on the State’ as was the case in the first ‘JVP insurgency’ of 1971. Instead, it took to ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ militancy, in a very big way.

This is also not to say that the LTTE terrorism was in response to the JVP attacks on minorities, both Tamils and Muslims. In an earlier round in the second half of the sixties, when at its infancy, Sinhala Left militancy had targeted Upcountry Tamils, the fourth ‘ethnicity’ that the small nation has been home to.

The militant JVP died a violent death as it had professed for the rest. The LTTE too went the same way, but possibly with fewer casualties than the JVP. But allegations galore that more Tamil civilians died at the hands of the armed forces in the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ than possibly Sinhala civilians at the height of the anti-JVP operations of the late eighties.

It is thus assumed that most Sinhala-Buddhist youth who died then at the hands of the armed forces were all either JVP militants or their ardent supporters or sympathisers. Their numbers too are put at anything between 60,000 and 100,000 but no confirmed/verifiable figures are available.

Most of those that died in the anti-JVP operations were men and women in the reproductive age-group. Many of their counterparts/brethren from the Tamil community two decades down the line too should have become there. It is too immature to ask if their offspring would have been a militant or a medicine man, or what. The nation has lost a whole generation, and their offspring who could well have brought glory and prosperity.

OMP and more…

It is in this context that the recently-constituted Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) assumes greater significance. Formed at the instance of the UNHRC-Geneva, or more precisely to honour one of the four commitments that the incumbent government had made at inception, if only to escape what looked like the imminent wrath of the international community, OMP is seen as a tool to assuage hurt Tamil sentiments.

Not many may have noticed it, or even acknowledged it, but then the OMP dates back to 1971, possibly coinciding with the ‘first JVP insurgency’, where again youth (though Sinhala) may have vanished into thin air. It is anybody’s guess what evidence may remain and which of the perceived perpetrators might remain for ‘justice’ to be done to the victims.

Reparations, yes, to the families in all such cases make sense. But in a governmental scheme, a person is assumed alive if not proved dead – whatever the cause of such death or disappearance. It is anybody’s guess how the seven-member OMP hopes to identify each case of such disappearance, even if limited to Eelam War IV, for starters. In as many cases where they may have evidence to the death of individuals, there could be an equal number where there would not be any such evidence.

Be it the  ‘LTTE era’ Tamils or the ‘JVP militants’, there have been reports of many escaping the long arm of Sri Lankan law, and settling down in other parts of the world, possibly under aliases. From the JVP long-list, we now have the classic case of Premkumar Gunaratnam alias Noel Mudalige, who had obtained Australian citizenship and passport. Guanaratnam was in the news post-war, and for all wrong reasons and under wrong circumstances.

Proving a point

There is any number of such cases from among the Tamils, or so is it believed. From time to time, western governments, otherwise sympathetic and supportive of the ‘larger Tamil cause’, have shown up detailed ‘illegal migrants’ from the community. They are not just boat-people, who actually fled the country fearing reprisal for their alleged LTTE links. Not all of them were ‘economic refugees’, both from the war era and later on. There were also hardcore LTTE militants.

Whatever be their background, and whatever their ethnicity, they are officially ‘missing persons’ in Sri Lanka. Not very long ago, there appeared a case of a Sri Lankan doctor causing wanton injuries on those desirous of escaping from the country and seeking ‘political asylum’ elsewhere, as if to prove a point, prove their own case.

It is anybody’s guess if the recently-constituted OMP has the mandate to knock at the doors of foreign governments to seek first-hand information about the whereabouts, if any, of any of those reported ‘missing’ back home but might be suspected to have assumed a new identity overseas. Even if families are silent, there could be those cases where others might wantonly ‘report’ a missing person, out of old or new spite, with ‘evidence’ to their new identity/identities.

These may sound far-fetched. But then both in the JVP and more so in the LTTE individuals assumed more than one name. The outside world knew only the top leaders by their original name, or whatever name they were known otherwise. The rest of them all, a few thousands, to say the least, could not be possibly traced to their parent-given names. Are they all going to be assumed as ‘disappearance’ case if they do not want to stand up and counted in?

Mechanism, machinery

The question remains if the OMP will have men, mechanisms and machinery to investigate individual cases of ‘disappearances’, to arrive at a conclusion that could hold ground in a court of law. This becomes very important in the context of the subsequent commitments of the Sri Lankan State to the international community at Geneva, to create accountability mechanisms.

Under the Westminster scheme that Sri Lanka follows, it’s ‘innocent until proved guilty’. Long after the war, for the Government to agree to probe panels with sweeping powers to assuming missing persons as dead persons, and also assume that they had died actually at the hands of the armed forces, could create more problems than solving it.

It is unclear what kind of mandate would the OMP now have to call in evidence and cooperation from foreign governments, if any or many of the ‘missing persons’ are presumed to be living under aliases in any  or many of those countries. Going by the Australian experience in protecting the original identity of Kumar Gunaratnam, leave aside ensuring his personal security, it is anybody’s guess, what kind of cooperation Sri Lanka could expect from its western allies, who had passed the Geneva resolution in the first place.

This, despite the fact Australia is one of the few nations which is harsh on boat-people, including recent illegal Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka. Like in the case of Kumar Gunaratnam, other governments could seek to protect the interests of those needed identification, at times leading to their ultimate prosecution for crimes committed back home, if and when they are known to have assumed citizenship of those countries, since.

Alien travel

The temptation to compare the South African efforts in this regard and related issues should be nipped in the bud. In the case of South Africa, there were, for instance, very few cases of their citizens assuming aliases and settling in other nations, and be there for decades now, raising new generations, and moving on from their original city/state/nation where they had started their ‘alien travel’. That is not the case with ‘missing’ Sri Lankans, be they JVP Sinhalas or LTTE Tamils, or innocents from among both communities.

It is nobody’s case that the dead should not be counted, or a closure found for the sake of the families that are still hunting for their missing dear ones – not knowing if any or all of them are even alive or not. But in the contemporary context wherein new and varied ways of digging the racial past of the majority community is on display at frequent intervals, any futile exercise with good intentions but incomplete investigations could be more than counter-productive.

It could, well, just open a Pandora’s Box, and nothing more!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

2 Comments for “Opening Pandora’s Box”

  1. Robert

    Dear Mr Sathy.

    How much you know about Sri Lanka ? – I truly do not know

    When ordinary Buddhist population is happy to go along the road doing mob violence, why do you blame one single man?

    Sit down think clearly – What is Sri Lankan man’s psyche? Your president did not ask you to go on the road and a burn properties. It was Buddhist monks and you worship them and call your country a Buddhist country
    It is their culture,

    Burning houses and killing people – 1915, 1956, 1958. 1961, 1964, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983 ….. I lost the count after that. All involves Buddhists.

    Sri Lankans have no problems in taking matters to their hands. – Gangster land.

    Now- please do not do research in this mess and write articles on behalf of Indian Government. This mess would not have happened if Indian state looked for a good solution than looking after their own interests in the past.

  2. Robert

    The disappearances in thousands are witnessed by their families in war. They were loaded into buses by the military and herded into camps.-

    No one came back.

    Eknelligoda did not come back; Mohan , former Chief justice stated that he saw Eknelligoda in Paris. ha..ha …..

    Sunday Leader’s ,Lasantha’s murder- lots of facts are only coming out now

    The author writes nonsense.

    This is now Indians do business in Kashmir,

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