Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Sri Lanka's 'Disappeared'

by Stewart Bell, The National Post, Canada, October 27, 2008

Abductions are not uncommon in Colombo, where members of the ethnic Tamil minority complain they are treated with suspicion by security officials and accused of being rebels.

Human Rights Watch reported last March that hundreds of Sri Lankans had disappeared since the resumption of the country's civil war. The report says more than 1,500 cases were reported between 2005 and 2007.

"In the great majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch and Sri Lankan groups, evidence indicates the involvement of government security forces," the report said.

A Tamil searches for her missing husband

Malini Thambipillai's four-year-old daughter keeps asking her the same tough question: Why do all the other kids have a father but not me?

Malini Thambipillai holds a photo of her husband, Sritharan Subramaniam, who went missing a month ago in Sri Lanka. Oct 2008
Malini Thambipillai holds a photo of her husband, Sritharan Subramaniam, who went missing a month ago in Sri Lanka.

The answer is too hard to explain to a pre-schooler: her father is among the "disappeared" -- the hundreds, possibly thousands, allegedly abducted in war-torn Sri Lanka.

Since her husband was taken away in a white van last month in the capital Colombo, Mrs. Thambipillai, who works nights in the packaging department at a Toronto napkin factory, has been mailing letters to anyone who might help.

"I need my husband, and she wants her dad," she said in an interview recently at her north Scarborough apartment, where photos of her husband are displayed in a glass case.

Mrs. Thambipillai came to Toronto in 1998, one of the tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils who left Sri Lanka for Canada to escape the country's 25-year civil war between government forces and separatist rebels called the Tamil Tigers.

In 2003, she married Sritharan Subramaniam, who had also fled to Canada. But while she took her oath to become a Canadian citizen, his refugee claim was rejected and he was deported.

Upon returning to Colombo, he worked at a restaurant while she sponsored him to return to Canada. The Canadian High Commission called him in for an interview but the case was still unresolved at 10:20 a. m. on Sept. 19, when Mr. Subramaniam and a friend were allegedly abducted.

"We have been hearing a lot of stories like this," said David Poopilapillai, spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress.

The Congress wants the United Nations to set up a monitoring mission in Colombo to independently investigate disappearances and abductions.

Mr. Poopilapillai also said the Canadian government is partly to blame because it should not have taken so long to approve Mr. Subramaniam's sponsorship application. "Our system failed on this," he said.

The man abducted with Mr. Subramaniam turned up after a few days, but there has been no word of Mrs. Thambipillai's husband, who turns 35 in December.

Family members in Colombo reported the case to the local police, but the officers said he was not in their custody and they had no information about him.

"I could not guess any valid reason of his disappearance because my husband is a law abided [sic] citizen of Sri Lanka and never got involved in any activity of the rebels," she wrote in her letter.

Abductions are not uncommon in Colombo, where members of the ethnic Tamil minority complain they are treated with suspicion by security officials and accused of being rebels.

Human Rights Watch reported last March that hundreds of Sri Lankans had disappeared since the resumption of the country's civil war. The report says more than 1,500 cases were reported between 2005 and 2007.

"In the great majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch and Sri Lankan groups, evidence indicates the involvement of government security forces," the report said.

The report acknowledged that some of those abducted may have been members or supporters of the Tamil Tigers rebels, "but this does not justify their detention in secret without due process."

Sri Lanka's civil war has been intensifying in recent months, as government forces advance deep into rebel territory in an attempt to finish off the guerrillas.

The Tamil Tigers are widely categorized as a terrorist organization, including in Canada, because of their use of such tactics as suicide bombings and political assassinations.

In an interview with the National Post last month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said some of those reported missing had actually fled to Western countries.

sbell@nationalpost.com