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Sri Lanka's 'white van syndrome'

By Roland Buerk
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The Sri Lankan government claims to be on the verge of delivering a knockout blow to the Tamil Tigers. But in its pursuit of victory, has the government lost the chance of lasting peace?

Sri Lankan soldiers
The Sri Lankan army has seen recent successes against the Tigers
In 2006, an internationally brokered ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) broke down.

Since then the government has been determined to win the civil war that began 25 years ago and has cost well over 70,000 lives.

On the battlefield, the Sri Lankan army has been remarkably successful. The Tamil Tigers have been pushed out of their traditional strongholds in the Eastern province and are now fighting for survival in the remote north.

Their goal of an independent state for the ethnic Tamil minority seems further away than ever.

But in the pursuit of victory and in order to exert control over the recently captured east, the government has controversially turned to former Tamil Tigers who changed sides. The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal or TMVP broke away from the rebels in 2004.

It has now become a political party, and in an alliance with the government, was elected to head the Eastern Provincial council.

Human rights groups have accused the TMVP of widespread human rights abuses, including abductions and extrajudicial killings.

White van syndrome

"His hands were tied up behind his back and he was beaten. I could see that he was beaten. Sometimes we believe he will come back, sometimes we believe he is no more."

Sri Lankan checkpoint
The country has witnessed 25 years of insurgency

A mother-in-law describes seeing her daughter's husband in a TMVP camp after being detained by the group in eastern Sri Lanka.

That was a year ago, and he has not been seen since. The family do not know if he is alive or dead.

Sunila Abeysekera, a prominent Sri Lankan human rights activist says abduction is now common practice. She explains that in the east, the Tamil civilian population was forced to engage with the Tigers as they were in control of the area for many years.

Now that the rebels have been defeated, she says, the civilians that interacted with the LTTE are being targeted.

Tamil men have also disappeared in Colombo, Sri Lanka's main city.

We met another woman who said her husband disappeared when he went to Colombo to get a passport, on 12 January 2007. Unidentified men came to his hotel and bundled him off in a white van.

According to her, during the same period around 30 to 40 other people were abducted in Colombo in a similar manner.

Reports of Tamil men being taken off in this way never to be seen again have become so common on the island that Sri Lankans have nicknamed the phenomenon "white van syndrome."

Sri Lanka's government says many of these stories are false, intended to discredit it and its allies.


The man many people believe to be ultimately responsible for abductions and killings in the east is Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, aka Col Karuna Amman.

Col Karuna tells us he was the Tamil Tigers' military commander until he broke away in 2004, taking with him a rebel army that became the TMVP political party.

For 25 years there has been terror, gun culture. And in a couple of months it will not be tickety-boo or come back to normal
Keheliya Rambukwella,
government spokesman

In November 2007, Col Karuna was arrested in the UK on immigration violations and served nine months in prison.

While in jail, human rights groups lobbied the British government to prosecute him for human rights abuses. However, after an investigation, the British Crown Prosecution Service said there was not enough evidence to try Col Karuna and he was released.

Today, Col Karuna has been installed as an MP by the Sri Lankan government and he is guarded by soldiers that not long ago he was trying to kill.

Col Karuna denies any involvement in abductions and killings and says he is willing to work with human rights groups.

Map with bullet marks
The Tigers have moved from the east further north

For the government, the TMVP's journey from rebel fighters to political office is one of redemption.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella does not accept that the TMVP is responsible for the wave of abductions and killings and strongly refutes any accusations that the government has turned a blind eye to such activities or that elements of the security forces have taken part in them.

Instead he emphasises the repentance the former Tamil Tigers have shown and believes in giving them a chance.

He is aware that certain incidents have taken place, but feels that nonetheless Eastern Province is on the right track.

"Obviously for 25 years there has been terror, gun culture. And in a couple of months it will not be tickety-boo or come back to normal.

"We are heading for total democracy and total development and total peace. But it's not there yet. I hope that tomorrow will be a happier day minus all these things."

Work in progress

The offensive by government forces against the Tigers remains widely popular with the Sinhalese who make up three quarters of the island's population.

For years people in Sri Lanka have endured the everyday danger of suicide bombings and attacks blamed on the Tamil Tigers.

Such attacks are a constant threat in Sri Lanka and many see victory in the war as the only way to peace.

The Sri Lankan government says it will be magnanimous in victory, and democracy in areas taken from the rebels so far is a work in progress.

But the government's human rights record during the war, and TMVP's unsavoury activities in the east, will not have helped build much needed trust among the Tamil minority.

You can hear Roland Buerk's report from Sri Lanka on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 27 November, 2008 at 1102 GMT. It will be repeated on Monday, 1 December, 2008 at 2030 GMT.

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