White Vans

13 Aug

The Sri Lankan government won a decisive and comprehensive victory over the LTTE in 2009. Luck had little to do with the victory. Instead years of cynical planning went into the campaign: loans were secured to fund the military, western INGOs with their bothersome talk of human rights were booted out of the country, local civil society was threatened, weapons and know-how were acquired from an unlikely bunch of countries, and strong domestic support for the war was cultivated. Newspapers that asked awkward questions were burned down and journalists murdered. Aside from the usual conventional military hardware, the Sri Lankan military had another weapon in its armoury: the humble white van.
These white vans were operated by military intelligence and ran an undercover abduction and murder operation. A key part of the military campaign was to intimidate civil society and to undermine the social capital of Tamil society. Civil society activists, Tamil community leaders, and people who got in the way started to go missing. The stories told by the families of the missing persons were suspiciously similar: the victim was last seen being taken away in a white van. Sometimes bodies were found, sometime not. In all cases, the police knew nothing. The government was ready with glib explanations. All of this is well documented, not just by organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.* The US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report noted that ‘The government and its agents continued to be responsible for serious human rights problems. Security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings …. Disappearances continued to be a problem’.**
Despite the comprehensive victory over the LTTE, the white van abductions have continued. Rumours abound that the white vans are for hire with drug barons finding their services useful or that they are engaged in ‘social cleansing’. And earlier this year there was a startling event: a white van team was captured! They had been attempting to abduct a town mayor (whose brother had been abducted several months earlier) but were overpowered by his supporters. When the police arrived they found that the white van occupants were members of the military, carried military ID, military rations, and military weapons.*** The team is even captured on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrZs6Drfhkc
Despite this embarrassment, the prospects for change are poor. President Rajapaksa is well-entrenched and has a track record of overlooking human rights abuses. The Minister of Defence is the President’s brother. Crucially, by raising money on the open market – especially in Asia – the Government does not have to worry about human rights conditions tagged to western donor aid.

* http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-sri-lanka and http://www.amnesty.org.au/news/comments/26316/
** http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/sca/154486.htm
*** http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/03/18/a-mayor-the-army-and-white-van-abductions/

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