The Sunday Leader

Office Of Missing Persons What Is Behind?

by Ashanthi Warunasuirya

The government passed the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill in parliament recently. Before and during the process, there were heated debates about the issue in parliament and amongst society. The controversy over this the OMP is still at large. While some say that the OMP is an attempt to take certain politicians and army personnel to the gallows, some others say that it is a positive step taken towards the long sought after reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in the country. The opponents of the OMP also say that it has been given power to surpass the country’s present law and even power to take autonomous actions in certain circumstances. But the OMP proponents say that it has no such power but just the power enough to investigate alleged crimes and persons and submit relevant reports to the superiors. Amidst this OMP controversy, The Sunday Leader sought the comments of some prominent members of society on the issue.

 

Brito Fernando – Chairman, Association of the Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared

After 25 years, a government of Sri Lanka has promised the international community at Geneva that they will take steps to investigate disappeared people. Accordingly, the government took steps such as signing the UN declaration against disappearance, setting up a task force and obtaining parliament’s approval to set up an Office for Missing Personnel (OMP). These steps can be regarded as positive developments towards keeping its promise. Although the government is not moving fast in this regard, we are optimistic about the future.

Certain extremists in the South including Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara are trying to disrupt these proceedings by claiming that there are attempts made to take the army to the gallows. But if Mahinda and Vasu had brought in parliament a bill in 1989 against State sponsored abductions and executions, it would be the same bill as this one. As those who backed it then are against it today, people such as Mangala Samaraweera who backed it then is backing it still. As representatives of the family members of the disappeared, we are glad about the government’s decision. There are certain lapses in this Act. Especially, as to how these findings could be linked to justice and the steps the government should take with regard to compensation. But at this instance, we will stand by the government to defeat the agenda of racists.

It would have been better if the OMP was given some more power. We would propose for a better mechanism that would make use of the information received from the people. The government has promised to set up a separate bureau for this purpose. We urge the government to implement it soon.

It is a good sign that the government had agreed to look into the disappearances that had taken place since 1971 instead of 1989. Even the Geneva report had focused on the years – 2002 – 2009. The office would also look into the disappearances of military and police officers. This is a good step towards reconciliation. I see this as a central institution that could combine all disappearances. But we must keep in mind that this is going against the will of the racist politicians in both North and South. So we must try to make the best of it. By finding out the truth behind disappearances and by punishing those responsible for them, any future atrocity could be discouraged. It is a progressive step the government has taken by criminalizing forced disappearances. It sends a strong message to those who think of protecting these culprits to retain power. Further, the apologies made by Ranil Wickeremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga to portray their honesty must be admired. The promise they have given about preventing such atrocities from taking place again in the country is good news for everyone.

 

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Pubudu Jayagoda – General Secretary, Frontline Socialist Party

We have continuously said that there should be credible investigations into disappearances, killings and attacks during and after the war. The people deserve to know the truth about these alleged cases. The government had not claimed that there is a legal barrier against disclosing such information. They could have done a lot more under the existing legal framework. But they have not done anything during the past 1 1/2 years. In April 2012, comrade Kumar Gunarathnam was abducted. In November 2015, during an interview with the Sath Handa newspaper, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa admitted that he was involved in it. So we can see a clear crime here. We have so far made three complaints to the IGP about this issue. But to this date, nothing has been done. This is only one among many examples to show the government’s inefficiency.

Justice must be done to the disappeared. We are firm on the stance that the truth must be revealed. But we cannot be satisfied about the recent Act. The government must justify their decision to bring in new legislation after failing to execute even the existing laws. They must show the inadequacy of existing legal remedies. But instead, they have just brought in a new bill only to show off that they are committed to the task. At present Sri Lanka’s lack of democracy has been criticised by other countries. So, to secure foreign investments, the government has decided to set up this office. We see no genuine intention behind this measure in finding the truth. However, we will make complaints to this new office as well.

We have information about disappearances taken place since 1980’s. We also possess credible information about almost all the cases of disappearances taken place in Colombo and outstation areas during and after the war. After the present government assumed power, we have made hundreds of complaints about these cases. We even made a petition to the President. The government who kept mum in all those instances cannot be trusted in setting up a proper mechanism to find the truth about disappearances. So, we would continue our struggle forward. It is only by pressurizing the government we could win our demands. On the other hand, the Joint Opposition (JO) has said that the military would be betrayed by this measure. This is a joke. If that was the case, then it’s the politicians who commanded the army that has to be caught first. There may be a possibility of punishing those who had obeyed the commands while those who have given the command are set free. That is a political issue. However, we also oppose the opinion of the JO on preventing investigations into disappearances claiming that that they may affect war heroes.

However, we are strictly against the policy of the government in living off by selling the slogan that they are committed towards finding the truth. By doing these meaningless things without taking any progressive step to establish reconciliation, is only going to create more social problems in the long run. So far the government has taken no steps to change the minds of the people. We must now focus on laying down the foundation to future reconciliation. If the government tries to aggravate racism, that is going to be disadvantageous. We need a mechanism that is different from ordinary legislation. We are committed towards creating a social dialogue on the subject. We see no judicial powers vested on this entity. It is just another ‘investigative body’.

 

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Sandya Eknaligoda – Disappeared Journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s Wife

I took part in a discussion about this bill before it was brought in the parliament. There the issue of families of disappeared persons in both North and South were discussed. We made many suggestions to this mechanism. The main request was to change the name of the body. Unfortunately, our suggestions were not accepted. Generally, it is good that such an entity is set up. This provides some opportunity to look into the problems of the disappeared people’s families. However, still there are many weak points in this system; it is like what the pro Rajapaksa group is claiming about hunting down war heroes. This has been set up to do something progressive towards finding out what really happened to these disappeared people. Since it was the Rajapaksas who had allegedly ordered many of these disappearances, they are now against any investigation into the matter.

But there are several structural weaknesses in this system. Especially there is no space for the victims in this mechanism. We asked the government to consider the problems of these victims under this mechanism. But the entity that has been set up t cannot do anything helpful for the victims such as family members of the disappeared.

This is the beginning of a new institute. The appointments would be carried out by the President and duties for the office as well. The office and its officials would be given adequate authority. But still there is no judicial action or a compensation mechanism included in this Act. The only thing this office can do is to summon the witnesses and carrying out investigations. I have not studied this act thoroughly. But prima facie I see these lapses.

Still there is no clear idea as to what is going to happen after the investigation phase. So it is important to include the victims in this mechanism. In a country where literally nothing was done on this issue for many years, setting up this office is indeed a progressive step. What is important is to sustain this momentum.

Unfortunately, we were able to take part in the discussions only once before it was passed in parliament. Most of our suggestions have not been considered. We have clearly emphasized that the name should be changed to ‘forces disappearances’ as there are no voluntary disappearances in this problem. It is also important to look into cases that had taken place even before the war.

 

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Ruki Fernando – Human Rights Activist

This was something promised by the Sri Lankan government to the international community. It is clear that over a hundred thousand people in the country have disappeared. Even the present government has claimed that over 65,000 people have disappeared since 1995. So far the family members of these disappeared people have not been given any answer to their plight. No one knows whether they are dead or alive, why they were abducted, or what had happened to them.

The main objective of this office for the disappeared is to find out the truth about these people. Since over a hundred thousand people have disappeared, finding out the truth and informing their families the truth is essential. Without doing that, we cannot have good hopes about the future.

But unfortunately I’m not yet clear about the structural format of this institute. As parliament has approved, the entity would consist of 7 members. They are to be given equal status of commissioners. Under their supervision, investigations are to be held into various issues such as mass graves and protecting the victims. It is also allowed to seek expert advice on the issue.

Knowing the truth is expected by all family members of these disappeared people. It is equally important to compensate these victims. In many a case, bread winner of the family disappeared. So the government has a responsibility to care for these family members as well.

 

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Keerthi Tennakoon – Executive Director, CaFFE

The basic structure and management concept of this mechanism has to be admired. This is going to execute a task that the people much yearned for many years. We strongly believe that this would be able to cater something positive unlike the previous government’s attempts. What we must not forget is that it is not only the Tamils in the North that have suffered disappearances. It is common to many Sinhala and Muslim families as well. It may be true that the most number of complaints about disappearances have been made by the Tamils. But there have been a lot of complaints made by other ethnic groups especially in Batticaloa and Vavuniya Districts. So justice must be equal to all.

Finding out the truth is an important aspect of any civilised society. People have a right to know the truth. For that, we must have a mechanism to find out the truth. Those who talk about truth, hardly know about it. It is only after knowing the truth, we could decide whether to punish the wrongdoers or not.  So, it is clear that the government has taken the first step towards justice, although it was long overdue. But we must be patient to see what happens next.

2 Comments for “Office Of Missing Persons What Is Behind?”

  1. Kumaraya

    Good step. Hope this will not go like other probes of the past: Still doubts on the following:
    1. How long this will go on. Will they submit periodic report every year or six months. Will actions against those found guilty be taken by OMP. There should be a time frame for submitting reports etc.

  2. S B Lokuge

    If OMP is really serious about the disappearances of as many as hundred thousand of people since 1971 JVP insurrection, it must not concentrate only of the Tamils during and after the EElam war. Most of those disappeared were Sinhala Buddhist youth, many were killed in cold blood, tyres round their bodiesduring 1989 – 1990. It was not surprising UNHCR, NGO’S and other loud mouths kept quite about the murders of those JVP suspects because they were Sinhala Buddhist youth who always stood up to racist foreign powers and their masters. Chandrika commissioned an investigation on those killings which the PM is accused of involved in the torture chambers of Batalanda. If OMP has any creditability, it should make that report public.

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