Over a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, the government of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has finally accepted the fate of 10,000 Tamils who had gone missing during the ethnic violence as dead. The admission marks the first time the authorities have accepted state complicity in the disappearances and deaths of thousands of people from the minority Tamil community.
“These missing persons are actually dead. Most of them had been taken by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or forcefully conscripted,” the statement made by the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lankan government comes at a time when his party is trying to introduce a legislation that intends to provide immunity to those persons who were responsible for the widespread abuses that took place during the civil war in the country.
Rajapaksa himself was the defense secretary at the time when the Sri Lankan government began its brutal campaign against Tamil soldiers led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who controlled the northern part of the country. Rajapaksa has been accused by several human rights groups of carrying out mass killings, enforced disappearances and executions during his tenure but these allegations have been repeatedly denied denied by the president. In fact, large sections of the Sinhalese community consider Rajapaksa a war-hero for his commitment to getting rid of the prolonged conflict in Sri Lanka.
According to local reports, the statement of admission was given in front of the United Nations envoy to Colombo. Rajapaksa added that his government will take initiatives to provide official death certificate to the thousands of Tamils whose demise has been finally accepted by the government. He further admitted that the intention behind such an admission was to bring closure to the families who were suffering without knowing the real fate of their kin. However, he also clarified that Tamil politicians should not use “this opportunity to cause unrest”.
26 years of ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, that took a violent turn in 1983, have led to tens of thousands of deaths and immeasurable suffering. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Sri Lankan forces indulged in “unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and gender-based violence en masse against Tamils.”
Frances Harrison, author of Still Counting the Dead, has noted that within the span of five months in 2009, a United Nations panel documented credible reports of up to 40,000 deaths, but estimated the real number to be much higher. The atrocities committed in the penultimate years of the conflict have been described as the worst nightmare in the subcontinent. Numerous testimonies of the atrocities committed by the government forces against the Tamil community have been recorded since then.
The United Nations has also stated in several reports that the Sri Lankan soldiers systematically executed bound and blindfolded civilians. As per Harrison’s account, “Heavy artillery was also repeatedly launched into a ‘no fire zone’ resulting in the deaths of up to 70,000 largely Tamil civilians.” Yet, “the international community made a cautious decision of siding with the Sri Lankan government and ignoring the calls of intervention,” he concludes. The government has been widely criticized for allegedly killing thousands of Tamils in the name of “war on terror.”