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The Dubious Commission Pot…

By Vijitha Herath MP

Matale mass grave… a commission is appointed to probe ‘those who died of smallpox’

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) smallpox is one of the epidemics that has been eradicated from this earth. This was announced in 1979. As such, nobody is worried about this disease. There is no necessity to carry out tests on those who had died of this disease as there is nothing to find out. The media trumpeters of the government proclaimed at the beginning of this year that the skeletal remains found in Matale mass grave were that of persons who had died of a smallpox epidemic. Now the President is appointing a presidential commission regarding the remains of ‘those who had died of smallpox’ that has been eradicated from this Earth!

However, this indicates Rajapaksa regime has come to an understanding regarding the skeletal remains found at Matale mass grave; that they are, as correctly recognized by the former JMO at Matale, skeletal remains of those people who were tortured and murdered during the 1987/90 period. The mass grave found at the premises of Matale Hospital is the largest mass grave ever found in Sri Lanka. Despite the fact that the UPFA government is not directly responsible for these murders and the liability is credited to the UNP now in the opposition, the government did not take any interest in taking legal action regarding the matter. Instead, only statements that the remains belonged to those who were killed in smallpox, floods or earth slips were allowed to roam in the society. However, masses suspect that such acts of confusion are carried out as a powerful member of the current government was the head of security sections that was in charge of Matale area at that time and skeletons would jump out if closet doors are opened.

Now the government, after a delay, has appointed a Presidential Commission to probe the mass grave. It is only after judicial proceedings regarding the issue have been going on for a long time; several people who claim that the remains may be of their kith and kin had presented affidavits with the mediation of the JVP that represents the aggrieved party; after police have taken down statements from those relatives; Sri Lanka Bar Association declared they would assist the judiciary in the proceedings; the police were ordered to publish notices asking the public to forward any information regarding the mass grave.

The sudden appointment of a presidential commission is suspicious. It is not an isolated occurrence. The JMO who carried out excavations and presented a report regarding the Matale mass grave was transferred to Kurunegala. The Magistrate who was hearing the case has been transferred to Colombo.

On the other hand this PSC is appointed when people have lost any confidence in presidential commissions. Despite various governments appointed presidential commissions, only the recommendations regarding their political rivals have been implemented. Any recommendations that would give benefits to people would move at a snail’s pace or not at all. Ms. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who came to power marketing the memory of those who were killed and disappeared during the 88/89 period, appointed a special commission of inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons in Central, North Western, North Central and Uva provinces due to people’s intensive insistence.

This commission commenced its investigations in March 1995 and inquired into about 775 complaints. The commission received complaints of disappearances or abductions of 227 people from the Central Province and its report was released in 1997.

According to the commission report evidence had been established regarding powerful politicians, certain police officers, Army officers and others who were responsible for the acts. Among the recommendations the commission presented were conducting impartial investigations by a special team on abductions and disappearances, carrying out investigations impartially and swiftly, taking action against those who were named as responsible for the losses, taking action by the relevant department or institution if the responsible person is a state employee, granting scholarships for children of distressed families, compensating families who lost their relatives due to these abductions, and issuing death certificates for those who had gone missing. However, despite these recommendations being justifiable from the point of views of the masses none of them were implemented.

The report of the commission specifically names individuals who are responsible and should be investigated regarding disappearances and abductions in the Central, North Western, North Central and Uva provinces. There are also recommendations as to what action should be taken against these politicians, police officers, Army officers and others. When such recommendations already exist, appointing a presidential commission again on the Matale mass grave, which is new evidence regarding the disappeared and the abducted during the 88/89 period, is ridiculous and suspicious. There is the suspicion that government’s usual gimmick of diverting the attention of the masses and getting them to forget the issue is being carried out regarding this issue as well.
Also, a case No. B/1810/2012 regarding the Matale mass grave is already being heard at Matale Magistrates Court. What the government should do is to expedite and facilitate the legal process instead of removing the Magistrate who is familiar with the case. Appointing a presidential commission when a long period has already passed since the mass grave was found and while a case is being heard regarding it could be an attempt to sweep under the carpet the legal proceedings and divert the public attention away from it. This is the reality the history of presidential commissions forces us to assume.
It would be erroneous to think that the government could deceive masses and the international community to consider that this is a country that is concerned regarding human rights by appointing another commission. What the government should do is not to interfere in the legal proceedings regarding the Matale mass grave but implement immediately recommendations of the commission that had submitted a report already instead of testing with the ‘commission pot’. For, any other behavior would be questionable and would make the masses suspicious.

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