By Jehan Perera –
An academic of Sri Lankan origin, Dr Minoli Salgado, recently conducted a workshop on Writing Truths: The Power of Testimony, in which key concepts in testimony studies were discussed in the Sri Lankan context with a view to developing a survivor-centred approach in the production and reception of testimonies in the country. As part of its commitment to the UN-mandated concept of transitional justice, the government has also pledged to set up a truth-seeking commission in which testimony will be given and recorded. The setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) by the government, as part of this same commitment, and the OMP’s issuance of its first report last week made this workshop a relevant intellectual exercise at the present time.
As part of the workshop methodology, the participants were asked to share a story of a war victim that they had heard from the person sitting next to them. As there were many of us, we were given only two minutes to summarise the story that we had heard. Sitting next to me was a female religious and she told me this story of a mother who had lost her daughter. It was the last days of the war in May 2009. About a hundred youth in an area were rounded up by the Sri Lankan military and put into a bus. The daughter of the woman was one of them. The mother got onto the bus along with another mother. They were permitted to travel for a while but at a certain point they were offloaded and the bus went on. They never saw their children again.
This was the story I related to the participants at the workshop. I was congratulated for having summarized the story I had heard in less than two minutes. This story was described as a fitting case for the OMP to investigate as it fitted into the mandate of that newly set up institution. This is the challenging task of the OMP which has to deal with 20,000 other cases of missing persons as well. This is going to be challenging not least because the victims have fragmented memories of fragmented lives in the context of being displaced numerous times, and the structural obstacles to finding out what happened to those that went missing.
But as the discussion at the workshop continued, I suddenly remembered that I had left out an important part of the story in my hurry to summarise the story into the two minutes that had been allocated. This was that six years later in 2015, the mother saw the photograph of her daughter amidst a group of youth who were photographed along with President Maithripala Sirisena. When I said this, the participants observed that the story was now a new one, and there was a prospect that the missing girl would be found. The story had taken on a second dimension and this was a hopeful one. The discussion at the workshop proceeded with others sharing their stories.
Then again I remembered, I had left out another important element of the story. The mother’s belief that she had seen the picture of her missing daughter along with the president received wide coverage in the news media. “Tamil mothers recognize disappeared children, in a photo with President Sirisena” wrote Melani Manel Perera as the headline of a story that appeared in the Asia News website. As a result of this and other media publicity, the mother of the missing girl had said that she received a visit from a person who claimed to be associated with the president’s media unit. He had said he would find the girl in two weeks.
Much later the message came that there was no information. The girl continues to be missing, one of the 20,000 missing who have been registered with various authorities. This third version of the story I heard and reported in such a broken and fragmented manner to the participants of the workshop brings us to the great tragedy of those who have lost their loved ones and continue to search for them. The task for the OMP would be to patiently and tirelessly document each case as an individual one, with as much detail as possible. It will not suffice, nor be acceptable, if a general statement is made that all those missing are presumed dead, as done by governmental leaders. Such blanket pronouncements, that do not show a sign of caring for individuals, will not end the search for the missing persons, and will more likely bring bitterness that the Sri Lankan state does not care.
Behind every missing person will be a family and relatives who feel the need to find out what happened to their loved one specifically and in detail and will not be satisfied with general answers. This will be the most difficult task to which the OMP has to find answers as the system that made these people go missing is unlikely to collaborate. One of the participants at the workshop, Sandhya Ekneligoda, whose husband Prageeth went missing outside the battlefield a year before the end of the war, said that suspects in her husband’s likely killing have been taken into state custody. But they will not provide any further information that might incriminate others who were more responsible for the human rights abuses that took place in that time of impunity.
In its interim report that was released last week, the OMP recommended the publication of a full list of all detention centres as well as detainees and ensure that persons are not detained in any unauthorised detention centres and to repeal and reform provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permits prolonged detention of individuals without judicial review. It also recommended the suspension of state officials, including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or are indicted in cases relating to abductions and enforced disappearances till the final determination of those cases. It also recommended to provide adequate material and human resources to law enforcement officers, the Attorney-General’s Department as well as the judiciary to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators of enforced disappearances. ‘
In addition to the focus on political and human rights issues, the OMP in its interim report also gave attention to economic development aspirations of the government and the general population. The current socio-economic situation of many families of the missing and the disappeared is dire and cannot wait until a final reparations scheme is devised. Thus, a key set of measures is required to provide urgent and immediate relief to the families, the report says. Among the interim relief proposals of the OMP is a proposal to pay a monthly living allowance of Rs. 6,000 to those who have no permanent income. In addition the OMP recommends the introduction of an employment quota of 1% within the state sector in order to facilitate family members of the missing and disappeared who have requisite skills, when vacancies in the public and semi-governmental sectors are being filled.
The OMP faces an uphill task but it comprises some of the best persons that Sri Lanka could bring forward to do the best that can be done in the prevailing circumstances. This is a new experience to Sri Lanka, and the demands will be very great. In other parts of the world, these processes take decades to unfold. The OMP’s seven commissioners bring different skills and experiences to bear but the binding factor will be their integrity and commitment and their success will be in their maturity and sense of balance. The work they do will lay the foundation for truth, justice and reconciliation to emerge, which is essential if Sri Lanka is to leave its divided past behind and journey forward to a shared future.