|At the first CMC meeting, 9 April.|
Sixty-year-old Egamabaram Palaniraja, the owner of Mythili Jewellers in the heart of Colombo, went missing on 12 September last year, along with his 23-year-old son Balasaravanan and employee, Ganesan Muhundan. All three were abducted while returning home at around nine in the evening, just metres away from the Sri Lankan prime minister’s office. Two days later, Palaniraja was released 250 km from Colombo, in Polonnaruwa in the North Central Province, and ordered to arrange an “undisclosed” amount of ransom money to secure the release of his son and employee. After extracting millions of rupees, the abductors released both of the youths but retained the vehicle.
For a citizenry that slid into a virtual war last July despite the existence of a truce to which both the government and the LTTE rebels continue to pay lip service, the past few months have been a nightmare. Beyond the stepped-up military engagements, there have been dramatically increased levels of forced disappearances, extortions, extrajudicial killings, general harassment and intimidation. Amidst widespread human-rights violations in Sri Lanka today, one of the most significant, and most under-reported is the ongoing intimidation, extortion and abduction of affluent Colombo-area Tamil businessmen. This phenomenon was recently referred to as a “thriving industry”.
Palaniraja is among the lucky few. Many abducted Tamils never return home, even after paying multi-million-rupee ransoms. S Srikandarajah, a leading sugar merchant, and his driver were abducted in July 2006. But they failed to secure their freedom even after SLR 30 million was paid for their release. While Thirunavakurusu Puvaneshwaran, a successful Tamil businessperson, was released after SLR 1.5 million was extracted as ransom money, trader Maxie Bolton has still not been let go although the requested money was deposited.
More white vans
With the phenomenon of disappearances prevailing in Colombo, its sizeable and economically powerful Tamil population is seized by fear. Not only is it susceptible to forced disappearances by the Sri Lankan Army, the LTTE breakaway Karuna group and occasionally the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP) for alleged connections with the LTTE, its commercial success also puts it at risk. Some of the abducted have been released after severe warnings, while the mutilated bodies of other victims have been recovered near culverts, waterways, paddy fields and roadsides, transmitting a potent message to the living.
Since the resumption of virtual wartime conditions in July 2006, the Civil Monitoring Committee (CMC), a multi-party human-rights group that works in Colombo and its suburbs, has recorded over 80 disappearances. Although there has recently been something of a lull in the numbers of abductions reported, the trend in extortion is on the up and up. A likely indicator of the excessive intimidation has been the increase in the number of Sri Lankan Tamil business families fleeing the island. According to CMC records, over 30 Tamil businessmen have left the island during the past two months, to shift their base of operations to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe or West Asia.
These victims tended to lay the blame on the Karuna group and, to a lesser degree, army deserters as well as activists with the EPDP. It was the LTTE that used to kill or demand ransom from the supporters of alternative Tamil political parties such as the EPDP and Karuna faction. But in Colombo today, Karuna activists far overshadow any other outfit in carrying out extortions, with occasional collaboration from government security forces.
While analysts point out that the disappearances do not necessarily have a political element to them – with victims being not just Tamils with origins in northeastern Sri Lanka, but also those of Indian origin and the occasional wealthy Moor – others note that government complicity is aiding the culture of impunity. Either way, says CMC chairman Sirithunga Jayasooriya, the evidence is incontrovertible as to who is being targeted: “Many victims are from two predominantly Tamil areas, Colombo 6 and Colombo 13. They are also business hubs.”
Many of the victims have only returned to the island following the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), with an eye to investing in their homeland. One Sri Lankan Tamil who keeps houses in Britain and Sri Lanka, who did not want to be named, says that a white van has recently been seen repeatedly near his Colombo residence. The passengers of the vehicle had questioned the man’s neighbours about his return from the UK, and also about his Sri Lankan businesses. “I took a couple of years to formulate a business plan,” he explained. “The business climate created by the truce is what inspired me to return after decades in the UK. Now I have returned here only to be hounded by white vans wanting to find out details about my investments.” He is now contemplating returning to the UK, and abandoning his Sri Lankan venture.
Many others have, of course, already thrown in the towel. A reputed Colombo jeweller, who has received several threatening telephone calls demanding millions of rupees, says that it is not possible to continue his business in Sri Lanka anymore. “I have already selected a location in Chennai to relocate my business,” he said. “It is sad because I ran two jewellery shops for 30 years in Colombo without any problem, and even survived the 1983 communal riots.”
Not only do Tamil businesspeople in Colombo feel physically and commercially threatened, says CMC convenor and Colombo District legislator Mano Ganesan, but matters have been compounded by significant police inaction. “There is a complete breakdown in the law-and-order situation,” he says. “We have provided telephone numbers, some bank-account numbers of extortionists, and eyewitness accounts in certain instances to assist the authorities. They have done absolutely nothing to bring the culprits to book.”
As the pressure mounts, Ministry of Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella admits to “some problems”. But while he adds that a presidential inquiry into the matter “could be appointed”, he refuses to discuss when this will happen. He also denies widespread charges that the government has failed to take action. “It is easy to blame the government,” he said. “Civil society can help the authorities by providing vital information.”
Even while the CMC has been attempting to provide just those details, the allegations of government complicity have received added momentum from within the government itself, particularly from Deputy Vocational and Technical Training Minister P Radhakrishnan, himself a Tamil. Upon receiving complaints from other Tamils who had recorded their own interactions with extortionists, Radhakrishnan took the matter up with President Mahinda Rajapakse, providing the telephone numbers of several extortionists, along with an appeal for immediate intervention. The only outcome: Radhakrishnan was summoned by the police to explain how he got the telephone numbers.
With the Sri Lankan government failing to control the situation, the opposition is getting vocal, as is the demand for international intervention. Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe says that the government has failed to contain the extortion situation. “The incidents are on the increase. In such circumstances, we are compelled to support the call for an international human-rights monitoring mission,” he said in late April. “People have lost faith in the law-enforcement mechanism. The United National Party is obliged to assist these victims, and do everything possible to prevent an escalation in abductions and extortions.”
The possibility of international involvement in highlighting the disappearances has brought some hope to even victims’ families, says Ganesan. “Given the gravity if the issue, what we ask is so little,” he says. “But for a government that is hell-bent on abetting the crimes by sheer non-action, this may prove impossible.”
~ Dilrukshi Handunnetti is investigations editor at The Sunday Leader in Colombo. She is a lawyer by training.