In Sri Lanka a white van without a number plate is a symbol of terror and the disappearances that occurred in all parts of the country.
Commissions on Disappearances in the South during the last few years of the 1980s have documented at some length how armed men, travelling in white vans without number plates abducted thousands of people who were never seen again. These reports are available at www.disappearances.org.
Now such vans have reappeared and do so frequently in the Jaffna peninsular. A report from one family states "the fear of the white van in the day and specially in the night is killing everyone [with fear] in the peninsular."
What the men who come in these vans do is the same as what happened in the South (in the late eighties time of terror).
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) gives the number of the disappeared from the Jaffna peninsular since December last year as 419.
Not all these disappearances are attributed to "armed men coming in white vans without number plates" - which usually means the military. The LTTE and other militant Tamil groups alleged to be working with the military have also been accused of such abductions which end up as disappearances. International human rights groups have accused the LTTE and other militant groups also on that score.
However, in many cases, the suspicion of the family members is that such occurrences are done either directly by the military or with its approval. Such complicity will not come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the extent of the disappearances that have taken place in Sri Lanka in recent decades. The reports of the Commissions appointed to investigate these earlier disappearances place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the state agencies.
In Sri Lanka causing of forced disappearances has been treated by the state as a legitimate means by which to deal with 'terrorism'. The failure to investigate and to take appropriate legal action is also evidence of the state's involvement in such matters.
The fact that the opponents of the government at various times, like the LTTE and the JVP, have taken to violence is used a legitimate reason for the state carrying out forced disappearances and similar modes of the use of extreme violence; that the poison must be killed with poison and that the violence of terrorism must be dealt with by equal or more ferocious violence is an unquestioned part of the state ideology, regardless of which government is in power.
A former Deputy Minister of Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, was known in the latter part of the 80s as a leader who openly advocated and carried out this policy. The disappearances during that period officially amount to about 30,000 while the other non-state sources have given much larger numbers.
It is today not challenged that except for a handful of cases, the victims of these disappearances were not hard-core insurgents (this of course does not mean that even hard core insurgents can be killed after securing arrest).
The reports of the Commissions of Disappearances mentioned above have demonstrated that most cases of disappearances have happened after arrests which often takes the form of abduction.
For Ranjan Wijeratne and others (political leaders as well as some military and police officers) disappearances were the most practical method of dealing with insurgency.
Disappearances help to do away with the necessity for arrest and detention which can create many legal problems, the keeping of political prisoners, which is again a complicated problem, having trials which requires security arrangements and similar problems which in turn create practical problems for state agents.
Disappearances also help to erase all evidence as secret abductions often end up in the secret disposal of bodies.
If in the use of this easy method some mistakes are made in the arrest of innocent persons, even if they far outnumber any "culprits", that is unavoidable and Ranjan Wijeratne called such acts mere excesses. Talking to parliament he said that these things cannot be done through legal means as that will take too much time.
This same ideological position has never been clearly repudiated by any of the Sri Lankan governments.
Within Sri Lanka at the moment there is no government authority with the capacity to efficiently investigate the disappearances like the one in the case mentioned above.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) may record some facts of such disappearances but it does not have the capacity to investigate them in any manner that could be called a credible, criminal investigation.
The assurance of some state authorities to the effect that if soldiers are found to be guilty of such acts they would be punished is a mere rhetorical gesture in the face of heavy criticism from local and international sources. There is no state machinery to give credibility to such assurances.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has been pointing out for several years now the deep impasse in the state's criminal justice system which makes it impossible for any gross abuse of human rights to be credibly investigated or prosecuted.
There have been no attempts to cure this situation. Instead with time this situation has degenerated even further.
Now after the virtual collapse of the cease fire agreement the country is entering into a further period of terror in the name of counterinsurgency.