By Jehan Perera –
International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3) is an international observance promoted by the United Nations since 1992. The observance of the day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It is meant to have as much significance as other better known days, such as International Human Rights Day or International Women’s Day. It was on Disabilities Day that the National Peace Council held the inaugural meeting of its inter-religious committee in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the LTTE, which saw heavy fighting seven years ago. The event itself was held in the Cooperative Hall which, according to an inscription on the wall, had been opened by the Hon Namal Rajapaksa during the period of the last government.
The large hall in which social and educational events take place is part of the massive infrastructure development that the former government engaged in the North and East in the belief that it would win the hearts and minds of the people. The former government’s political strategy with regard to the people living in the former war zones of the North and East was that economic development would suffice, and it was not necessary to either ascertain the truth about the past or to address the political issues that had given rise to the war. But this belief was shown to be incorrect as the Tamil voters in the North and East voted repeatedly against the government that provided them with economic infrastructure but without attending to their individual basic needs or to their collective need for political rights.
A large and well attended event to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities took place on the ground floor of the two storey Cooperative Hall. Those who attended were family members of the disabled persons. Some were blind, some were in wheelchairs while many walked relatively normally but with limbs that were missing. The event that I had come to participate in was upstairs. The level of participation was less than we had expected. During the discussions that followed it became clearer why this was so. We were chided for having organized our event on International Disabilities Day. This day has significance in Kilinochchi and other Wanni districts where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place. One participant advised us that this was a day that must be given as much importance as International Human Rights Day or International Peace Day, and asked us whether we held a regular event on such a day instead of celebrating it.
However, our shortcoming enabled a discussion to take place on the issue of persons with disabilities in Kilinochchi. According to statistics available at the central government’s district secretariat, there are over 3285 persons with disabilities. But only 483 of them are being provided with the Rs 3000 grant to which they are entitled. It was also reported that the Northern Provincial Council has given a much larger figure for people with disabilities as being in the region of 18,000. The large disparity in numbers may be on account of different measures where it concerns disabilities. We were told that people with disabilities could include those who had no outer disability but had bullets inside them. These could also be chronic pain and mental trauma. Most recent reports on the health effects of war have focused on post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, many of which are not identified as war-related disabilities until years after conflict ends.
The neglect of those who have disabilities in terms of obtaining financial assistance is often made worse by the discrimination they suffer in their daily lives. We were told that it was more difficult for those who had disabilities to get licenses for driving, even when they had passed their driving tests successfully. In addition they find it difficult to get into buildings that have not been constructed in a way to facilitate their entry and movement. A greater governmental demonstration of empathy for those with disabilities in the Wanni would make the general population feel that the government is concerned about those who are victims and contribute to the post-war healing process not only for those with disabilities but also for the general population.
Another point that was stressed in the discussion was the importance of caring for individuals as opposed to thinking of macro or political solutions only. At the present time the government is giving priority attention to issues of constitutional reform. The government has expressed its determination to seize the present opportunity when it has the two largest political parties in alliance and have also obtained the support of all the ethnic minority parties. In particular it will want to focus on finding a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict and to set in place a constitutional settlement that can be built upon in the future as well according to the changing needs of the country’s multi ethnic and plural polity. However, at the same time it is important that the individual needs of war affected people should also be given priority attention.
At the top of the list of concerns of the people of the Wanni is the fate of missing persons. The government commission on missing persons (the Paranagama Commission) reported that there were about 20,000 complaints of missing persons that they had recorded. These are people who continue to be missing seven years after the end of the war. The logical conclusion would be to assume that most of them are no longer alive. However, those who are relatives of missing persons, and those who saw them surrender to the security forces at the closing stages of the war, are not prepared to accept blanket statements about the fate of those they saw go missing. They say they saw the missing persons being registered and photographed prior to their disappearance. So someone somewhere will know what happened. At the discussion in Kilinochchi it was emphasized that the affected people will not accept blanket statements but will require individual accounts of what happened to be provided to them.
The government is today seeking to implement the transitional justice process that the international community has set for it, and is about to announce new mechanisms to follow the Office of Missing Persons that was recently put into law. These measures need to be accompanied by more caring for individual victims. Institutions such as truth commissions will help to create awareness in the general population about the true nature of war and those who were victims. It will create empathy and strengthen the resolve of society that the resort to arms and to violence must never again come to be. It will also give relief to those who are victims that they are able to tell their stories to the state, that must care for all equally, and demonstrate this care by going into the details of what happened to them and give them the answers they need to have.
At the end of our meeting at the Cooperative Hall, we were invited by one of the religious clergy to visit an orphanage and home for mentally disturbed persons. We met with young children who had lost their parents for various reasons. One of them was a child who lost her entire family in a bomb blast. I recalled that six years ago on a visit to Trincomalee I had been shown another child in another orphanage. Her mother had been killed as the family fled the last battles, and she had refused to move from her mother’s side until her father agreed to stop their fleeing from the battle zones to bury the body. Six years later the needs of these war victims need to be addressed better by the Sri Lankan state. Macro level change, such as constitutional reform, is difficult to achieve as it is politically controversial, and so is delayed. But this excuse cannot be given where it concerns giving a strong message of care to those who have been victims by reintegrating them into the mainstream society and giving them individualized care.