By Shamindra Ferdinando
Washington-based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) says it campaigns for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people, living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Identifying itself as a non-profit organization, PEARL says formation of the group took place in 2005 in the wake of volunteers visiting Sri Lanka – the year before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched the fourth phase of the war.
Having reignited the war, in August 2006, with devastating initial success, the LTTE, however, lost the entire Eastern Province, by mid-2007. The armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Since then, various Tamil politicians, Diaspora organizations and suspicious bleeding hearts, in the West, have been alleging enforced disappearances on a mass scale.
“For too long, the plight of the families of the disappeared has been used as a talking point and a prop for politicians and the international community, but no concrete measures have been taken,” said PEARL’s Executive Director Tasha Manoranjan. “The international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009 — it is now time for the same international community to meet the demands of the families of the disappeared,” she said, in a statement issued in solidarity with the Tamil families of victims of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, from the 1980s and during the entirety of the country’s armed conflict. PEARL estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000, during this period.
PEARL, too, alleges genocide and demands accountability on the part of Sri Lanka. The group admits that it twice revised its five-year strategic plan after wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election. The original plan, put out in 2018, has been revised in Dec 2019 and April-July 2020. Perhaps, PEARL will have to revise its strategic plan further in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party securing an unprecedented near two-thirds majority at the Aug 5, 2020 general election. PEARL anticipates rapid deterioration of the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a result of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory. PEARL has conveniently forgotten Tamils living there overwhelmingly voted for General Sarath Fonseka at the 2005 presidential election. The group’s concerns over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory obviously seemed baseless against the backdrop of Tamils’ backing for war-winning Army commander Fonseka’s candidature at the 2005 presidential election.
PEARL will also have to take into consideration the major setback suffered by one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), at the recent general election. Having championed hybrid war crimes court in terms of Geneva Resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’, co-sponsored by the yahapalana government, the TNA felt comfortable though the general election results proved otherwise. The TNA ended up with just 10 seats, its worst performance since winning 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with overt and covert help from the LTTE.
In addition to the TNA, two other political outfits, namely the Ahila Illankai Tamil Congress (AITC) and Tamil Makkal Theshiya Kutani (TMTK), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C.V. Wigneswaran, respectively, have emerged at the expense of the TNA grouping, led by veteran Sampanthan. It was more a war of attrition, fought by the two, against the established TNA that resulted in the major electoral reversal by the latter.
It would be pertinent to remind how lawmaker Ponnambalam, on Aug 21, 2020 reiterated genocide allegations during the debate on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement, delivered on the previous day. While declaring their resolve for self-determination, Ponnambalam challenged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate, and that of the SLPP, received in Nov 2019 and August 2020. Many an eyebrow was raised when Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in respect of C.V. Wigneswaran’s provocative speech, at the inauguration of the parliament, declared that lawmakers were free to say whatever they wanted to.
The writer felt the need to examine the contentious issue of missing persons, against the backdrop of PEARL’s latest statement, headlined “PEARL stands with Victims’ Families in Sri Lanka on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances”, with the strapline ‘Since the end of the war in 2009, thousands of Tamils have not been heard from, after surrendering to the government’
PEARL has estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000 during the conflict and after. If the number of disappearances has been estimated as much as 100,000, wouldn’t it be necessary to examine the number of killed? Did some of those, who had been listed among the disappeared were actually killed in the fighting, or perished after being caught in the crossfire. Before examining the missing persons issue, let me remind the reader what yahapalana Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said of those categorized as disappeared.
Ranil sets the record straight
The 2015 presidential election brought an end to war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule. The Rajapaksa administration was repeatedly accused of running secret detention facilities, both in the Northern and Eastern provinces. A section of the Western powers, too, subscribed to these unsubstantiated allegations. In spite of the change of the government, in 2015, accusations persisted. In the run-up to the 2015 Geneva sessions, Sri Lanka was accused of still operating secret detention facilities.
In 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to set up (1) a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international human rights law (11) Commission truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (111) An Office on missing and (1V) An office for reparations.
In the run-up to the Geneva sessions, Premier Wickremesinghe chose to set the record straight, at a ceremony at Rukmale Sri Dharmaloka Vijayaloka Maha Viharaya, on March 01, 2015, to felicitate the newly appointed Maha Nayaka Thera Ven. Ittapane Dharmalankara. Among those present was Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo. Premier Wickremesinghe declared that as all those who had been taken into custody, during the war and the post-conflict period, were being held in legally run facilities, all detainees/prisoners could be accounted for. The UNP leader didn’t mince his words when he emphasized that those missing, but not listed among those in government custody, had either perished during the conflict or were living overseas ‘(Prime Minister denies existence of secret detention camps’. with strap line ‘Those not among prison population either perished during the war or living overseas, The Island March 04, 2015.’)
A couple of days later, Premier Wickremesinghe challenged the much-touted UN claim of over 40,000 civilians killed on the Vanni east front, in 2009. Wickremesinghe also stressed the urgent need to verify the UN claims, as well as various other accusations. Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe’s did nothing. Wickremesinghe handling of the post-war accountability issue, too, contributed to the humiliating defeat his party suffered at the recently concluded general election. Over seven decades old, the UNP ended up without an elected MP. Nearly a month after the general election, the UNP is yet to reach consensus on its solitary National List slot.
The UNP leader Wickremesinghe set the record straight in an exclusive interview with Indian Thanthi TV in which he insisted that figures, quoted by the UN or other organizations, couldn’t be accepted without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time, though Wickremesinghe did nothing subsequently to examine the Vanni death toll. Instead, Wickremesinghe gave the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera the go ahead to co-sponsor the accountability resolution, in Geneva, on Oct 01, 2015. The rest is history.
When the interviewer, S.A. Hariharan, pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths closer to 100,000, Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000. Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the PoE (Panel of Experts) report, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian deaths. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian deaths at 5,000. The UNP leader never called for the verification of the UN report until he was kicked out of parliament.
In spite of underlining the importance of verifying accusations, Wickremesinghe didn’t take any follow-up action. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government conveniently refrained from using heavy ammunition in our rightful defence, provided by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, to counter the PoE report. The incumbent government, too, is yet to formulate a cohesive strategy to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure.
PEARL owes an explanation
During the conflict, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled the country. The war here gave them an opportunity to secure political asylum in Europe, the US, Australia and the Scandinavian region. The Tamil Diaspora provided a substantial amount of funding, required by the LTTE to continue its conventional military campaign. The LTTE, in turn, controlled the Diaspora groups. The LTTE maintained strict surveillance over them. The Diaspora groups lacked courage at least to request the LTTE not to use their own helpless people as human shields in 2009. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what PEARL did during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka? Did PEARL intervene on behalf of the Vanni Tamils after the LTTE abandoned Kilinochchi, in January 2009? Did PEARL request the LTTE, at least privately, to let go of those who were being held as human shields on the Vanni east front at the behest of a megalomaniac?
PEARL’s Executive Director, Tasha Manoranjan, and a member of its board of directors, having alleged in their latest media release that the international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009, demanded the same international community should meet the demands of the disappeared. As a Diaspora group seeking to influence Western policy, through legal and political advocacy and direct research and reporting, PEARL should know how Western powers prolonged the conflict. In fact, the LTTE wouldn’t have survived nearly three decades without Western support, if not overt, but definitely covert. Western powers allowed the funding required to procure arms, ammunition and equipment needed to wage war though some countries proscribed the group. Neither did they unmask the international Tiger terrorist network, which was also resorting to drug running, extortion, etc., to fund the war here. However, the US facilitated the destruction of the floating arsenals in secret naval operations undertaken by the SLN. This was at the onset of the Vanni offensive.
If PEARL is genuinely interested in knowing what really happened to those who had been reported missing, it would seek the assistance of Western powers, as well as India. A substantial number of those who had been categorized as missing is today living in various countries, in many cases under assumed names. If not for them, there wouldn’t have been so many Diaspora organizations still raising funds on behalf of their people living in the Northern and Eastern Province.
PEARL tweeted on August 14, 2020: “Today marks 14 years since the #SLAF dropped 16 bombs over the #Sencholai children’s home, killing at least 51 #Tamil schoolgirls and 4 teachers. We remember them, acknowledge the gendered dimension of genocide, and continue to call for justice and accountability.”
Tasha Manoranjan, who had been in the Vanni at the onset of the Eelam War IV, tweeted on the following day; “I visited Sencholai hours after the bombing. The wailing of the mothers and families of these slaughtered schoolgirls haunt me to this day.”
Now that Tasha Manoranjan had claimed that she was hours away from Sencholai at the time of the SLAF attack on August 14, 2006, how could she become the founder of PEARL, established in 2005.
Manoranjan certainly owed an explanation.
Let me produce the description of the PEARL official on its official website: “Tasha Manoranjan is the founder and director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL). She spent over a year documenting human rights violations committed against Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka, and remains committed to pursuing accountability for violations of international law. Tasha was previously an associate in Sidley Austin LLP’s Litigation Practice. Tasha received her B.A., magna-cum-laude, in Justice and Peace Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Tasha earned her law degree at Yale Law School, where she served as the Features Editor and Book Reviewer for the Yale Journal of International Law, Chair of the South Asian Law Students Association and Community Enrichment Chair of the Women of Color Collective. While at Yale, Tasha wrote a paper entitled “Beaten but not Broken: Tamil Women in Sri Lanka”, which was subsequently published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.”
According to the website, Manoranjan works as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Is she a Canadian passport holder?
From Vanni to the US
How could Manoranjan, who had been in LTTE held Vanni, on August 14, 2006, ended up in the US? Or had she been a member of the PEARL at the time she entered the Vanni? In other words, what was her status at the time she entered Vanni? Did she ever serve the LTTE? When did she leave the Vanni? And, most importantly, how did she leave the country? Depending on the duration of Manoranjan’s stay in the Vanni, she can surely shed light on the circumstances leading to the entire Vanni population being herded into accompanying the retreating LTTE fighting units. What was Manoranjan’s status in the Vanni? Had she been a displaced person? Did anyone of her family serve the LTTE or any other terrorist group? In Manoranjan’s brief description there is no reference to her being in the Vanni during the conflict.
PEARL board of directors includes Dr. Vino Kanapathipillai, Gajan Raj and Sadena Thevarajah. In addition to the PEARL board of directors, its team comprised Tasha Manoranjan (Executive Director), Mario Arulthas (Strategic Advisor / Sr. Advocacy Officer, US), Anji Manivannan (Legal Director), Vivetha Thambinathan (Research Director), Avi Selvarajah (Sr. Legal Officer), Sivakami Rajamanoharan (Sr. Advocacy Officer, UK), Sagi Thilipkumar (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CH), Archana Ravichandradeva (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CA), Abarna Selvarajah (Advocacy Officer, CA), Thevya Balendran (Advocacy Officer, CA), Ernest Rajakone (Advocacy Officer, US), Luxsiga Ambigaibagan (Research Associate / Education Coordinator), Brannavy Jeyasundaram (Operations Officer) and Athavarn Srikantharajah (Interim Project Manager).
In addition to Manoranjan, did other members of the PEARL board of directors, as well as the PEARL team, live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, during the conflict? Had their parents been refugees during the conflict? Had their parents served the LTTE, or any other terrorist organization? As PEARL had secured the services of a capable team, it can probe how 60,000-100,000 people disappeared during the conflict. Let me remind multiple causes for disappearances/ cases where bodies were not found.
* Disappearances resulted from fighting among /between Indian trained terrorist groups.
* Abductions of civilians carried out by Tamil terrorist groups
* Disappearances during Eelam War 1 (1983-July 1987) blamed on Sri Lankan military and police.
* Disappearances blamed on the Indian military during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990).
PEARL should take into consideration the level of fighting between the Indian military and the LTTE as the former lost well over 1,300 officers and men and over 2,000 wounded.
* Those who disappeared /killed during weapons training in India
* Disappearances/deaths due to capsizing of boats taking youth to training facilities in India or while returning from India
* Those LTTE cadres killed by Indian security forces and police after the assassination of Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991 at Sriperumbudur, India.
* PLOTE cadres killed/disappeared during an abortive sea borne raid on the Maldives in early Nov 1988 and as a result of Indian military operations.
* Disappearances blamed on the Sri Lankan military during Eelam War II (June 1990 to 1994), Eelam War III ((April 1995 to Dec 2001) and Eelam War IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009)
* Those who perished while trying to reach Australia in boats.
* Clandestine movement of Sri Lankans facilitated by foreign missions in Colombo during the conflict and after.
* Issuance of new foreign passports to Sri Lankans under different names. One of the most glaring examples is Australia issuing a new passport to leader of the breakaway JVP faction Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Kumar Gunaratnam bearing Noel Mudalige, a Sinhala Buddhist. Many countries continue to issue passports under different names, even to former members of terrorist groups.
*Those taken refuge in India and other countries to avoid forced conscription by the LTTE.
* Bodies disposed of by Sri Lankan and Indian militaries due to their failure to establish identities of the dead. Those killed during clandestine operations in the South. And finally,
* Political asylum in industrial countries for bogus refugees on the false grounds of persecution in Sri Lanka?
Let me end this piece with a story of an ex-LTTE cadre who ended up being an internationally renowned actor. Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, the lead actor of French film ‘Dheepan’ which won the top Palme d’Or prize for director Jacques Audiard at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival in 2015 had been an ex-LTTE cadre who fled the country in early 90s. Jesuthasan is on record as having said that he wanted to reach the UK but had to settle for France. Perhaps, members of the PEARL board of directors/team should watch ‘Dheepan’ if they hadn’t already done so.
Those who had been killed in combat though their bodies were not recovered and those who fled Sri Lanka for various reasons and are leading comfortable lives overseas while Sri Lanka is under pressure to account for the dead and the missing. The vast majority are those who had secured political asylum, on bogus grounds, taking advantage of hostility of some countries towards Sri Lanka.