Published on 13 Nov 2013

Chasing the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s disappeared

I’m in seat 67, carriage B on the 0650 train from Colombo Fort station to Kilinochchi, the erstwhile rebel capital of the vanquished Tamil Tigers.

My Channel 4 team are scattered around me. For the next six hours we’ll trundle north, crossing coffee-brown rivers, past villages set among clusters of coconut palms, past emerald rice paddies, wading water buffalo and egrets.

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We saw a long snake swimming across a drowned field. The doors and windows are open and there’s a good draft. Outside, it’s hotting up.

Three rows in front, in seats 54 and 55, are the state intelligence agents – or, at least, the men we’re all pretty convinced are our government minders. They’re young with sharp haircuts; one in a blue stripey shirt, the other wears white, short-sleeved. They occasionally turn round just to make sure we’re still there.

At least we’ve convinced ourselves that that’s what they’re doing.

We were tailed as we bolted from hotel to station at ten minutes past six. It was comical. Six grumpy, adrenalised white men with small backpacks, on the run, desperately trying to hail tuk-tuks.

We figured we’d been clocked, but if we had been, they made no move to stop us. We hadn’t actually dared to believe we would make it this far. We had thought the invitation to travel around was rhetorical. The government’s made clear that they don’t really want Channel 4 here at all.

Dark art of abduction

At 1pm, our unwanted traveling companions will find themselves in the militarised Tamil north of Sri Lanka. But they’ll be amongst friends.

Military intelligence runs the show up there. The army is dominated by ethnic Sinhalese from the south. Four years after the long civil war ended, there’s an uneasy peace, it is said. But that’s what we want to see for ourselves.

As we head north, a convoy of special buses is heading in the other direction. Or was. We’ve just had a phone call from the CID to inform us that something appears to have gone badly wrong. That’s the Committee for the Investigation of the Disappeared, by the way – not the other much-feared CID, who specialise in the dark art of abduction.

The acronym joke is the black humour of human rights activists who, in this tropical tourist paradise island, spend their lives chasing ghosts, pressing their repressive government to investigate the cases of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who have vanished into thin air.

The voice on the phone said there’d been an army road block early this morning. Three buses, reportedly packed with 150 relatives of the disappeared, had now themselves disappeared.

They’d been traveling from the towns of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu to Colombo to join a vigil tonight. The vigil aims to highlight Sri Lanka’s abduction scandal in the run-up to the Commonwealth summit which opens on Friday.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa runs a republic of fear, which human rights groups say has more unresolved disappearances than any other country bar Iraq.

As I write, there are frantic efforts by the CID to locate the missing busloads of people. You can guess which CID is doing the investigating.

What I find utterly astonishing, as Sri Lanka prepares to host the prestigious Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, is that the government is brazenly riding roughshod over the very Commonwealth values it is supposed to embody – and says it’s committed to. These are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter, signed by the Queen in May. They include respect for democracy, human rights, rule of law, freedom of expression, good governance, the separation of powers as well as tolerance and respect.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government openly brands his critics as “traitors.” He has criminalised dissent, had peaceful protestors killed, impeached his Chief Justice (illegal under Sri Lanka’s own constitution) and abducted, disappeared, killed or driven into exile any journalist who dares defy. In Sri Lanka today, arbitrary detention is common and torture is rife. It is a police state; a surveillance society.

Two years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa amended the constitution so as to eliminate presidential term limits. Oh, and this man – who, ironically, rose to prominence as a human rights lawyer – is also accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As, by the way, is his brother (who besides being defence secretary is also an American citizen) and a number of his senior generals.

 

The tourists who come to soak up the South Asian sun are oblivious. Around 100,000 Britons holidayed here last year. Sri Lanka is British Airways’ top tourist destination in 2013.

But if there’s anything that captures the “turn-a-blind-eye syndrome” it’s the fact that next week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be crowned Chairman of the Commonwealth for the next two years. It feels like the beginning of some dystopian New Raj.

‘The cleaning unit’

Last night I was secretly visited by a woman called Nimalka Fernando, a human rights activist. She sneaked into our hotel to talk to us, despite suspicions that the walls have ears. Last week she was the victim of a string of overt death threats, broadcast on state radio in a phone-in show hosted by Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation’s Director, Hudson Samarasinghe.

Nimalka was labelled a prostitute and seven callers – four of whom identified themselves as ex-military – suggested ways by which she could be “eliminated.” They ranged from simple murder and dumping her body in a river (along with two other named “traitors”) to handing her over to “the cleaning unit.” This, one impish caller apparently made clear, was a special army unit, which, it is claimed, is under the direct command of the defence secretary, the president’s unelected but powerful brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Nimalka’s crime?

To openly oppose – as spokesperson for a national alliance of 150 non-governmental organisations – the upcoming Commonwealth summit. The president’s detractors believe that hosting the meeting is being used to shore up his domestic political capital. They see it as a spectacular propaganda coup for a megalomaniac dictator.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these world leaders have not been able to stand up and oppose this,” Nimalka Fernando said. “Engagement? I am exasperated by this language. If they are harassing the families of the disappeared, do you really think they are going to listen to a bunch of foreigners telling them what to do?”

She sneaked back out of our hotel. An hour or two later I received a text message: “Home safe” it said. But she’s not safe and she knows it.

As I tried to get over to sleep last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about another activist I’d met earlier: Britto Fernando (no relation to Nimalka), who had told me how campaigning for justice for the families of the disappeared had been enough to get him branded a traitor too.

As always, we expressed our concern for the safety of those, like him, who want to get their voices heard. Britto insisted, just as Nimalka did, that he knew the risks of going on camera. There was a chance, we agreed, that he might actually be safer for doing so.

But after our interview finished, Britto grabbed my hand. “And you promise,” he said, “to set up a fund for my wife and my children for when I disappear?” I looked at him, aghast. His face creased. The head of the CID had just cracked a joke.

UPDATE

Shortly after writing this article, a mob of hundreds of pro-government protestors blocked our train as it was preparing to leave Anuradhapura.

Earlier, when planning our trip, we had all decided that in view of the likely attempts to stop us travelling north, going by rail was probably our best bet. Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, who is travelling with us, said: “The one thing they can’t stop is a train…”

Tonight on Channel 4 News – White Vans, a film on Sri Lanka’s disappeared.

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter.

Tweets by @millerc4

25 reader comments

  1. Yoosuf says:

    Guys, Expecting some 007 actions, Come on!

  2. kumar says:

    Thanks for bringing out the real `happening` here– looking fwrd for more situation-analysis in this banana republic.

  3. Mike Harris says:

    When a war or natural disaster goes underreported, the agony of its civilian victims goes almost unrecognized. Imagine being the victims in an apparently interminable and underreported war, without an informed world community to which they can turn for urgent assistance.

    Therefore C4, please expose the truth and bring accountability and justice.

    The commonwealth risks serious reputational damage if it allows Sri Lanka to assume chairmanship of the organization.

  4. Mike Harris says:

    Unwritten laws which have been practiced for centuries in times of war guard defenceless people and not to kill the people surrender with white flag.

    Sri Lankan army killed thousands of people, including children who have surrendered with white flag on 17 – 18 May 2009.

    1. Adam says:

      Mike,

      I think both LTTE and govt. killed civilians. I was volunteering in Sri Lanka sometime back and LTTE bombed in Colombo Central Bank once I was there. Then again sometime later they blasted a commute train full of civilians near Dehivala, south of Colombo. These are the 2 incidents happened when I was there and there were so many more that goes to the account of LTTE.

      I guess C4 should be balanced and cover these things from both parties who involved in war.

    2. leo says:

      Yes, Mike, Defenceless people were in Iraq and in Afganistan, even in Guantana -bay. Unreported, unquestioned by any media at all. The report that UN has forgotten. Channel 4 blood does not boil for those atrocities and for human sufferings caused by an illegal invasion. No independent or international or any kind of inquiry so far. Possibly due to war on terror. After all they are not LTTE.

  5. Thruth says:

    Mr Miller, Why only your television is so much interested on sri lanka?
    Why not world renown television organizations such as BBC and CNN. Is there any politically motivated agenda behind this Sir? It is quite clear that you are exaggerating things out of proportions here, anybody with little common sense could understand this. Plaese add some credibility into your reporting Sir, otherwise you will expose your self very badly.

    1. Anne says:

      Other world renowned journalistic organisations are indeed also interested in Sri Lanka. For example:

      UK’s BBC: BBC investigates Sri Lanka disappearances
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24662898

      Spain’s El Pais: Un genocidio oculto
      http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/03/22/album/1363971652_091707.html#1363971652_091707_1363971737

    2. Vani Kumar says:
    3. Truth - Spell it right says:

      Look at the BBC report on alleged abuses under detention…. Are you still doubting that SL Govt is innocent. Unfortunately Channel 4 has lot of proof.

  6. kathir gopal says:

    you ‘mad people’- you channel 4 reporters, even after knowing SriLankan dictator/murderers should have taken more care in travelling or hired a private coach secretly to travel to north. stopping train would have been well organised by govt. minders or member of the dynasty.

    good luck to bring out more video from north.

  7. Vas says:

    Jonathan miller and team you guys are a brave lot, true professionals, please watch out these guys beat up the then visiting PM Rajiv Ghandi, they are really mad.

  8. Robin says:

    Dovid Cameroon shold boycott sri lanka .

  9. sachi says:

    c 4 ,you just try to find only sri lankan war.why not what happend in iraq by u.s.a army.have u seen only srilanka war?it’s seems to be there is lot of jouernalist in c4 without backbone.other hand c4 is not a world fenown channel,so we don,t care what ever you say..fucking c 4……

  10. chatura says:

    Guys,

    this is a return of favours by the Rajapaksa Inc. for the protests at Oxford union speech by LTTE.

    In this stupid game of you (LTTE,NGO,UK,US,C4 etc and Srilankan dictator and his cohorts, the victims are the poor tamil and Sinhalese civilians.

    Some one should take a step backwords for the sake of innocent Srilankan public, who killed nobody and have to pay the tab for your stupid games.

    You can’t stop fire by pouring oil on to it.

  11. Ana Wicks says:

    Channel 4 crew gives van driver the slip
    Police help sought to obtain his fare

    Pay the fee for your ride………

    http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=92100

    Driver of the van, which ferried the Channel 4 media crew, of six, from Anuradhapura to their hotel in Colombo, had lodged a complaint against the foreign journalists, at the Slave Island police station yesterday, claiming they owed him Rs. 30,000 for the two-day hire since Wednesday afternoon.

    Police spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana said that aggrieved S. K. Sanjeewa Silva of Suhada Road, Anuradhapura had become familiar with two foreigners out of the six, Macrae and Miller, via conversation, while they were returning to Jaic Hilton hotel from a hotel in Dambulla, where they spent the night and had given those two names as men he knew.

    The journalists had to return to Colombo after their journey to Killinochchi by intercity express train, was thwarted at Anurdhapura by the protesters on Wednesday noon.

    Asked by the police as to what the journalists had told him, when they got off at the hotel in Colombo, where they are now staying, one journalist had said ‘police’ and another ‘hotel’ and then they had left the vehicle.

    Having failed to get the money he was owed, he had then turned to the hotel management. But that too had failed as the hotel management had asked him to get it from the journalists.

    Investigations are being conducted by the Officer-in-Charge of the Slave Island police station, Chief Inspector, Marlan Perera.

    He said that the journalists were not present at the hotel at the time he went to record their statements.

  12. raj says:

    Hope Channel 4 team has experienced the real ground situation in srilanka. they know if go to the north more dark truth will appear to your eyes.. thats why u were turned back.. if the police can escort you to collombo.. why cant they escort u to the north…
    Truth is always Bitter… But thank u for Feeding it to the world…

  13. Anil says:

    Real ground situation? You mean people hate those three reporters? It was a protest, just like the one you hooligans staged when President Rajapaksa visited UK. So when SL President confronted protesters it was freedom of speech & when Sri Lankans protest and blocked 3 LTTE agents work for channel 4 it was “ a mob obstructed their journey ” ?

    Problem for us Sri Lankans is that vast percentage of British are very nice decent people but lot of them are too nice and naive to realize what is really happening. Tamil Tiger Inc. is one mega company around the world. They do have a well organized , well funded proxy propaganda arm. It is so very easy to organize anything these days. By spending $ 1000 dollars or just promising a family a safe passage to England as asylum seekers, one could mobilize 500 people to carry placards and scream ” Tortured, Tortured, Tortured”, then another mob will be asked to shout ” disappeared, disappeared, disappeared,” . SO THAT those three channel 4 guys will report that they have evidence to prove 500 people lost their relatives killed by SRI LANKAN forces and 500 were also toured by them.

    Of course , any war result in civilian casualties. Look at Iraq, in seven years 110,000 dead, out of which 65% dead WERE CIVILIANS. That’s freaking lot of civilians. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_War_Logs , from wikileaks) I wonder why President Rajapaksa and other world leaders didn’t go to functions in England to demand prime Minister an immediate war crime investigation?

    1. Arron says:

      Oxford university educated British prime minister David Cameron to the Tamil dominated north of Sri Lanka to see – and hear – for himself the allegations of human rights. He is dealing with the biggest gangster in the planet “Mahinda” Rajapaksa. And his establishment. I salute you prime minister your courage to visit northern region. Other world leaders follow your footsteps.
      My special Thank you to British media.

    2. Lukshana says:

      Consider why there is such a large Tamil diaspora in the first place; if the Tamils were not persecuted in Sri Lanka, why would the number seeking asylum and immigrating abroad be so high?

    3. Lukshana says:

      And what were the Sri Lakans protesting about – the right to have the freedom of press? if there is nothing to hide, why put up such a front? The difference between the Tamils protesting in London was that many of them were personally aggrieved; searching for missing family members, mourning for the loss of loved ones, demanding answers for breech of the most basic of human rights. I am not denying that heinous crimes were executed by both the Tigers and the SLA in the war. But it is the abhorrent nature of the crimes by the SLA towards the end of the war and allegations of rape and abductions that are still present, four years on, that demand investigating now.

  14. krishan milroy says:

    please.don’t try to devide our country peoples., you are don’t know how we suffered from LTTE terrorism over the 30 years. they blasted bombs at schools,hospitals,inside the busses,railway stations,and public places ect.. at that time why didnt you ask about our human rights???? now sri lankan peoples are living in one nations. dont try to break our country peace.,please.

  15. Neil Craig says:

    I am certain that C4’s slanted coverage of this will harm ordinary people in Sri Lanka. Slanted because what is alleged to be going on cannot be understood except in connection with the war. And that during that war the Tamil Tigers were genocidal in an open manner. People whose relatives were victims of genocide are not going to be gentle in restoring order – that isn’t a matter of right or wrong but an inevitability. By ignoring the Tiger atrocities and playing up present alleged, by comparison, minor stuff C4 is inciting more Tamil terrorism which will inevitably lead to retaliation.

    This lack of concern for people compared to getting a simple B&W story is common.

    However there is worse hypocrisy here.

    The repeated headlining of crying women & children is deeply cynical and also suggests a lack of actual facts.

    It is reminiscent of the coverage the UK state media gave to Kosovo where the lack of evidence of Yugoslav atrocities was mare than made up for by pictures of crying Albanian women.

    We now know that the reason there was no evidence was because the news was faked. In 4 1/2 years of Milosevic’s “trial” no actual evidence of any authorised wrongdoing by the Yugoslav government could be found. Channel 4 was as deeply involved in promoting these lies and thus the criminal war against Yugoslavia, not only by pushing false propaganda stories but also by deliberately censoring mention of the genuine atrocities being carried out by the drug lords, sex slavers and organleggers hired and armed by NATO as the KLA.

    Much worse.
    When NATO took over Kosovo, under an agreement to disarm the KLA, run a non-racist regime and respect Yugoslav sovereignty, they immediately appointed the KLA as police and sent them out to engage in genocide (such as the Dragodan Massacre where at least 210 unarmed civilians were murdered by NATO police outside the UK hq; to kidnap thousands of teenage girls to sell to brothels across Europe; to ethnically cleanse 350,000 people and to “arrest” thousands and dissect them while still alive to steal their body organs for western hospitals.

    Does anybody at C4 suggest that the Sri Lankan government have done anything 1% as evil as these atrocities?
    Does anybody at C4 suggest their government is 1% as “war criminal” as our own? Does anybody suggest that C4’s coverage of both is anything other than deliberate and almost complete censorship of atrocities more obscene, though not numerically equal, than Hitler’s?
    Does anybody at C4 suggest that you did not deliberately lie to promote and then censor genocide?
    Does anybody at C4 deny that you have continued to censor and lie to promote the racial programme of Adolf Hitler in the region? Every single day over the last 14 years.

    In which case can there be any suggestion that we should believe a single word you are saying about Sri Lanka, let alone what you imply (but do not say) with the usual cynical pictures of crying women, are in any way true, this time round.

  16. K Smith says:

    Thank you for reporting the truth and pushing for justice! Real journalism makes a difference in the world. You & your team are doing a brilliant job!

  17. Udula Wedaarachchi says:

    True story.. thanks for publishing..

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