By Jehan Perera –
For reconciliation to become a reality in Sri Lanka, no section of society should feel it is being marginalized or ignored. In a recognition of the need for all of society to be engaged, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) is about to commence a campaign to generate empathy for victims. The value of public processes in giving a place to those whose sorrows have been long ignored to speak their truth was seen at the public consultation organized by the OMP in Colombo last week. This consultation was meant for people from the Western Province. The problem of missing persons is not limited to the North and East nor to the Tamil people. In the past three months since it was constituted, and commissioners appointed, the OMP has been holding consultations in different parts of the country.
The significance of the OMP’s consultation in Colombo is that it highlights that its constituency is not limited to only the disappearances that took place during the course of the war with the LTTE. The OMP has no time bar and therefore covers earlier periods as well. The OMP’s mandate includes the disappearances that took place in the southern parts of the country during the JVP insurrections as well. At the public consultation in Colombo most of those who made public representations were those who lost their loved ones in the course of the JVP insurrection that took place during the period 1988-89. Although these events took place three decades ago, the memories still remain and hope still remains in the hearts of those who come for redress. The OMP is meant to locate the whereabouts of those who went missing or find out what happened to them.
One of those present at the OMP consultation was Shantha Pathirana. He said that his brother had been abducted in 1989. He had been working at a government hospital when his brother was abducted and never seen again. Their mother now wanted to block out the past, but Shantha wanted to pursue the past. I asked him why. He said he wanted to know why his brother was made to disappear. His brother was a trade union member. Therefore the hospital authorities may have wanted him out of the way. Shantha wanted to know whether the hospital authorities had been involved. He wanted the law to take its course and those who made his brother disappear to be brought to justice. He awaits the setting up of a judicial process that would ensure accountability for severe violations of human rights. This shows that the promise of the government in Geneva in October 2015 to set up a special judicial mechanism to ensure accountability is as much a need for the people of the South as it is for those in the North and East.
Amongst the others who came to make their representations was Sandhya Ekneligoda who had lost her journalist husband in 2008 in Colombo when he was abducted and never returned. Her public lament to the OMP was that some of the suspects from the security forces who were involved in her husband’s disappearance were now in remand custody. But the security establishment was not cooperating in providing information. Despite orders by the courts of law the information has been slow in coming and she appealed to the OMP to step into the breach and get the necessary information so that the case in court could proceed. The OMP is constituted of members who have the will and determination to fulfil its mandate. But they need to have political backing or else their efforts and the work of the OMP and the larger reform process itself can meander.
However, the political strategy of the government in dealing with controversial issues appears to be to work on them outside the public eye and get it passed into law and then let events take their own course. This is a ticking the box approach. But this is not enough. There also needs to be political accompaniment by political champions. The newly legislated Office for Reparations is an example. The legislation was passed in parliament by a slim majority, with most of the parliamentarians not participating in the voting at all. The legislation was prepared out of the public eye. It was not shared with either the parliamentarians or the general public prior to emerging as draft legislation. But this has enabled the opposition to take the upper hand in the public debate that has opened up after the legislation was passed in parliament.
The public untruths about what this legislation is meant to achieve is an example of what can happen when there is insufficient public discussion. This highlights the need for the truth commission that the government promised in Geneva in October 2015 as part of its package of four special mechanisms. Whether in Sri Lanka or internationally, the passage of legislation that is meant to look after those who were victims of past violence is an achievement that ought to be appreciate by the people. Dealing with the violence of the past whether in a personal or public setting is not easy to do. Dealing with the past especially when it involved a war, terrorism, and severe human rights violations that lasted for nearly three decades, necessarily requires dealing with a divided past. There is a need for the truth to emerge, as it can through the workings of the OMP and Office for Reparations and by the still to be established truth commission.
The new government institutions that have been established are now functioning in a variety of areas related to good governance. These would include the Office for Reparations, the Right to Information Commission and the Office of Missing Persons. But the extent to which the general public knows about them and their objectives is limited. Therefore they start off on a negative note in the minds of most people. Whether it is university students, business persons or grassroots community leaders, these new institutions that are meant to assist Sri Lanka in its democratic transition from war to peace are seen in a negative light as being detrimental to the country’s national interest.
The false propaganda about the Office for Reparations is an example of what can happen when there is insufficient information about a new mechanism that is meant to deal with a divided past. Unless the government takes the people along with it in the formulation of the new mechanism, the door is left open for the opposition to create fear and suspicion about it. The opposition has been claiming that the Office for Reparations is meant to compensate the LTTE for its losses at the behest of the international community. This was the view expressed by students of Wayamba University at a discussion on the transitional justice process last week that I attended. But when it was explained that what will be compensated is the loss of human rights due to a human being and to a citizen, and not the label, they understood and appreciated.
Ironically, the JVP which failed to vote for the Office for Reparations when it was being legislated in parliament has now come forward to be its main political champion in the public sphere. The JVP leadership has pointed out that racist elements had dubbed the Office for Reparation Bill as a move to help former LTTE members as they wanted to instigate communal disharmony. JVP Propaganda Secretary and MP Vijitha Herath said that the Office for Reparation Bill had been given various interpretations. But as he said the objective of the new mechanism is to compensate those who have been affected by political and civil conflicts irrespective of their ethnic or religious background.
As it enters its final year in office the government has many promises to keep. The most important of these is with regard to the constitutional reform process. Here again there is uncertainty in the minds of the people regarding what the government’s intentions are with regard to constitutional reform. There is uncertainty whether the government wants to keep the unitary state or depart from it. There is uncertainty whether the government will continue to give the foremost place to Buddhism in the constitution or will move away from it. Explaining the truth of the situation can win trust. The success of the reconciliation process will depend on the extent to which the people trust the government, the government speaks the truth to the people and still succeeds in taking them along.