By Jehan Perera –
On Valentine’s Day there were two events that took place at Colombo’s iconic Vhara Maha Devi Park. The two events that took place at the park on Valentine’s Day highlighted the contrasts that continue to prevail in society. One event was replete with music and youth and covered by the commercial media, the other event was attended by mostly elderly women who had lost their loved ones in violent conflicts over the past four decades and was ignored by the commercial media. This event was organised by Families of the Disappeared. They gathered together at Vihara Maha Devi Park and after a few of them spoke walked in procession to the Prime Minister’s Office to hand over a petition to call for the implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 including the payment of the Rs. 6000 interim monthly allowance to those who had obtained Certificates of Absence as approved by the previous government.
Most of those who attended the second event were women who had gone through the JVP insurrection of the late 1980s when mass killings, disappearances and abductions took place in different parts of the country in the areas where the Sinhalese ethnic majority predominated. The common factor with the Tamil insurrection led by the LTTE which was simultaneously taking place was that both were against the Sri Lankan state which reacted as harshly to the Sinhalese as it was to the Tamils who challenged its authority and suffered from the permanent loss of family members who were arrested, detained or were abducted and never returned to them.
Each of the women at the second event had a story to say that was tragic. One said that her husband was in the paddy field with her when the security forces came and took him away for questioning. Another said that her two brothers were studying in the university when they were taken away and she said that the country lost two PhDs as a result. Still another said that the family was at home when there was a cordon and search operation in which large numbers of young men and women were taken away never to be seen again. When they spoke of these events of long ago, four decades ago for most, the tears and faraway looks would still come to their eyes which bespeaks of the human love that endures for as long as life does.
Unlike the first Valentine’s Day event which had the power of money and the energy of youth to organize it, the second event was not easy to organize. The group from Batticaloa, who would have represented the more recent victims of enforced disappearance did not arrive. Since the change of government in November there has been increased surveillance of organisations involved in human rights issues and particularly those dealing with missing persons. There has been no direct restriction on their work, but the knowledge that the state’s intelligence agencies are having them under scrutiny would make anyone uneasy. The fact that both the leaders of the present and former government have publicly said that the missing persons are no longer living would indicate a lack of state support for such initiatives.
However, the deterrent factor of fear was mitigated in this instance by the fact that most of those who attended the commemoration event were victims of a UNP-led government, who are presently in the opposition. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was a youthful, heroic and highly energized opposition MP at that time. On one occasion he was even stopped by immigration officials at Colombo international airport for carrying files of the human rights violations that were taking place to be presented in Geneva before the UN Human Rights Committee, as the UNHRC was known at that time. Not surprisingly, the families of those who went missing during the JVP insurrection expect Prime Minister Rajapaksa and the rest of the government to be supportive of their campaign to obtain justice from the state for the terrible fate that befell their loved ones and themselves.
The previous UNP government’s reconciliation process, which peaked early with co-sponsoring of the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 of 2015 was meant as a response to international pressure with regard to the human rights violations that took place during last phase of the war with the LTTE. However, the key institutional mechanisms that were promised, including the Truth Commission, Office on Missing Persons and Office for Reparations are as applicable to the victims and families of the JVP insurrection as it is to those who were victims during the LTTE war. The establishment of the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations have given the families of the missing a new hope that they will obtain some sort of adequate redress that would compensate them for years of state neglect and personal misery they have had to undergo.
There are two main ways in which a state can be expected to legitimately respond to issues of human rights violations that occurred in the past. One is by acknowledging the past, expressing regret and apology, and by punishing the perpetrators of those crimes. This is a difficult if not impossible path for the state to move forward along because there is continuity in the state. In this context the pressure for dealing with the past through punitive justice will usually come from outside the state. Sri Lanka is presently facing such a challenge with the US government designating army commander General Shavendra Silva for alleged gross violations of human rights and imposing a travel ban on him and his family.
The more appropriate path for Sri Lanka to take at the present time would be that of restorative justice where the state would acknowledge the human rights violations and crimes of the past that occurred on all sides and seek to restore the lives of those who survived to the maximum level possible. Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council, Kshenuka Seneviratne, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN said Sri Lanka is committed to find innovative and pragmatic solutions driven by the domestic context to protect the country’s national interest guided by the provisions of the Constitution, and the will of the citizens expressed through democratic means. Now that the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations have been set up, the government needs to utilize them to the maximum to bring relief to the victim families instead of seeking to restrict their mandates or wind them up.
Most of the family members of the missing I spoke to at the commemoration event at Vihara Maha Devi Park said that their preferred options were that the state should acknowledge the truth of what happened and provide them with the material compensation to restore their lives to what it would have been if this catastrophe had not hit them. Surely the Sri Lankan state which is able to find massive funds to fly airlines that make mega losses, build airports with no planes, and ports with no ships, can find the massive funds required to restore the lives of its own sons and daughters who fell victim to the state’s inability to resolve conflicts peacefully. The Sri Lankan state will have a stronger moral position in contesting its international detractors if it sets out a roadmap to reconciliation with innovative and pragmatic solutions as promised and begins that journey today.