- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The politician knew something was amiss when a suspicious white van pulled alongside him at a Colombo park and four men got out, pretending to exercise.

Ravindra Udayashanta alerted his supporters, and police. Soon, the gunbattle began.

In Sri Lanka, anyone who has crossed someone of importance is wary of white vans, said to be the vehicles of choice for shadowy squads who “disappear” opponents of powerful people.

So, Mr. Udayashanta’s armed supporters immediately went into action.

“I heard the crack of a gun, and I too pulled out my pistol and fired back,” said Mr. Udayashanta, who had been involved in a long-running dispute with another ruling party lawmaker over a business deal.

Mr. Udayashanta’s brother already had disappeared — dragged away one month earlier, he says, by men in a white van.

But things went differently on this March day. Mr. Udayashanta and his entourage surrounded the men from the white van and captured them. Eventually, at gunpoint, the men acknowledged who they were: Sri Lankan government soldiers.

In a country where people had hoped the 2009 end of its bloody, long-running civil war would mean a return to normalcy — a country with a history of forced disappearances that stretches back to the 1970s — the open secret of the white vans has come to exemplify the terror felt by anyone who runs afoul of Sri Lanka’s rulers.

For years, little solid evidence had surfaced on the abductors.

Then came the cases of Mr. Udayashanta and that of another man in recent months — an Australia-based activist who says he was freed from abduction only under Australian pressure — who survived to tell their stories.

In Mr. Udayashanta’s case, police confirmed that the men in the white van were government soldiers.

But neither case has done much to overturn Sri Lanka’s apparent culture of impunity.

Police said the soldiers who got into a gunfight with Mr. Udayashanta were actually searching for deserters. Officials say the investigation is continuing, though it’s unclear what — if anything — they are doing.

Government leaders and the military deny any links to abductions.

Apathy on the part of many citizens over extralegal disappearances — and even tacit approval when criminals are nabbed — is partly to blame for their prevalence, said Ruki Fernando, an activist with the Sri Lanka human rights group Rights Now Collective for Democracy.

“This is a sign of an uncivilized and undemocratic society,” Mr. Fernando said.

Rights activists, opposition lawmakers and local journalists say top officials send abduction squads in white vans to disappear political opponents, activists and outright criminals.

White vans are parked in front of the homes of government critics, in clear attempts to terrify them into silence.

The citizen journalism website www.groundviews.com says that 58 people have disappeared over the past nine months. In at least 22 of those cases, witnesses saw the victims forced into white vans.

It’s not clear why white vans would be used, though many suspect it is because they are so common on Sri Lanka’s streets that they can quickly disappear into traffic.

A town council chairman in the Colombo suburb of Kolonnawa, Mr. Udayashanta branded the disappearances a form of state “terrorism.” He said the failure of authorities to fully investigate his case has robbed the country of its best chance so far to shed light on the white van abductions.

Large-scale disappearances were first reported in Sri Lanka in 1971, when Marxist rebels launched the country’s first armed rebellion. The second Marxist insurrection in 1988 and 1989 saw scores of young men and women abducted by government paramilitaries, with bodies later found burning by roadsides.

Abductions and killings also were linked to the Tamil separatist war launched in 1983, especially during the final years of the conflict. Victims ranged from suspected rebels, to journalists and human rights activists.

Though those conflicts have ended, the abductions have not.

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