Is Rs. 6000 too much to ask?

Families of the missing and disappeared; perhaps the only phenomenon that unites Sri Lankans across all ethnicities, occupations, social classes and religions!

They are those whose family members have gone missing during the various periods of civil unrest and conflicts that have taken place in the country since 1971. And for them, the wait for justice and compensation is well-nigh a half century.

There was a very short spell of financial relief for a few of the families at the tail end of the Yahapalanaya government, when it allocated Rs. 500 million, through which a monthly payment of  Rs. 6000 was to be paid to those who had obtained a Certificate of Absence listing their family member as ‘disappeared.’   It was suggested that the payment be also extended to those who had been issued death certificates for disappeared family members.

According to the Families of the Disappeared (FOD) a 153 families had received this payment at the time.

However, the FOD now claims that since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office in November last year, this payment has been halted.  Furthermore, there has been no allocation for the continuation of the relief measure in the 2021 budget just passed, the association alleges.

Even while searching for answers regarding missing family members, and interventions made to successive governments and international bodies, keeping body and soul together is as great a challenge for many of the affected.  Whether resident in the North or the South of the country, it is also a fact that a larger number of such affected families are headed by women.  As well, good portion of those seeking answers and redress are families of security personnel.

According to Britto Fernando, Convenor of Families of the Disappeared,  the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) records indicate that around 21,500 persons are listed as having disappeared, of which, at least 5000 are believed to be from amongst the security forces.

And in these trying days, when COVID has put paid to most persons securing a decent income or even holding a job, the economic and mental stress on families of the disappeared have doubled.

After the Rs.6000 monthly payment was halted, the group petitioned President Rajapaksa in February this year.  The FOD was requesting that the payment to these families recommence.

As well, the petition a stated that though recommended, those who had been issued Death Certificates for their disappeared family members, are yet to receive the monthly stipend.  While appealing to the President to address this lapse and to allocate necessary funds for the interim payments in the 2021 budget, the FOD also sought, as a final settlement, compensation of Rs. 2 million each for families of the disappeared or murdered.  In the case where a victims dwelling had been damaged or destroyed, the FOD asked that a reasonable amount be paid to restore their homes.

The FOD also asked that at least 1% of government jobs be reserved for families members of victims, assistance with housing, strengthening  of  the functions of the OMP, so the needs of the affected, especially those in the North and the East are better served,  accountability, and  that the truth about those  in the North and the East, who voluntarily surrendered to the security forces, at the end of the civil war in 2009 be revealed.

The petition was handed over on February 14, universally celebrated as Valentine’s Day, and commemorated by families of the disappeared as Missing Lover’s Day.   The event this year drew nearly 1200 family members from 11 districts.

Similar appeals were made by the FOD to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and to Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

With no response forthcoming the FOD has also appealed to Ali Sabry, Minister of Justice, in a letter addressed to him on August 24 this year, and yet again, in a letter dated October 13 to Dr. M K S Senanayake, Director General, Department of Fiscal Policy, Ministry of Finance.

As a last resort, FOD launched an on-line petition campaign in early December urging the government to ‘to allocate the necessary funds to continue the payment of the monthly allowance of Rs. 6000/= to the families who have obtained a Certificate of Absence (COA). We further request the Government to extend the payment of interim relief to the families who possess a death certificate where the cause of death is listed as disappearance.’

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When will there be justice for these family members?

In 2019, the then Yalahapalanaya government, though late in the day, approved the monthly payment of Rs. 6000 as an interim measure to families which could produce the Certificate of Absence (COA).  The approval of the Cabinet given on September 18, 2019 was based on a proposal submitted by the then Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera and  the Minister of National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress and Hindu Religious Affairs, Mano Ganesan in August that year.

The proposal, based on the recommendations made by the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), in its interim report of 2018 sought to make this temporary payment ‘until compensation and other forms of reparation are provided through the facilitation of the Office of Reparations (established under Act No.34 of 2018), to address their complex needs and acknowledge the harms suffered.’   The proposal went on to state ‘The acceptance of this relief measure will not be a waiver of the right to adequate, prompt and effective reparations and to seek judicial remedies.’

Though enforced disappearances are said to stretch as far back as 1971, when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, then a rebel group, attempted to overthrow the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike,  the numbers affected and details available are sketchy at best.

Since then, the country has experienced  Black July in 1983, which involved conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, a second unrest led by the JVP in the late 1980’s and the long-drawn out ethnic conflict between State forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam( LTTE).   Enforced disappearances occurred through all of these periods, with pro-government paramilitary groups, State security forces and Tamil militant outfits accused of carrying out those acts.

No one was spared; be they political dissenters, journalists, Playwrights, supporters of government or political parties and militant groups.

Indeed, families of the disappeared have been fighting for justice in an organized manner since the 1980’s when women in the North first came together to protest the rounding up and relocation to the South, of nearly 800 Tamil Youth.

In later years, current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa together with Mangala Samaraweera were instrumental in forming the Southern Mothers’ Front, and along with the Organisation of the Parents and the Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD) led by current MP and Minister for Water Supply, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and two others, campaigned against the then United National Party’s (UNP) era of terror, commonly referred to as  ‘beeshanaya.’

In fact, it was no less a person than Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, a Member of Parliament at the time, who took the complaint to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, seeking international pressure on the then government to end human rights violations that were taking place.  Ironically, during his term as President of the country, things were no better.  Anyone considered a dissenter was either killed, abducted and maimed, or made to disappear, as in the case of journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda.  To date, his whereabouts are unknown.

As well, his government and supporters have continued to scupper any interventions sought by the HRC, with promises of a local mechanism to address the many issues pertaining to justice and accountability for those particularly affected during the war years, as well as others and also on national reconciliation.

Prior to his presidency, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was also an active participant of the Mother’s Front, had, on the recommendations of a commission she appointed to inquire into the disappearances, awarded compensation ranging from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 50,000, to some victims.

The Families of the Disappeared has now picked up the work of the Mothers’ Front, relentlessly supporting affected members in seeking the truth about the disappearances, accountability and compensation.

The Yahapalana government, made up of both the SLFP and the UNP, under whose respective individual regimes enforced disappearances and murders took place, co-sponsored resolution 30/1, of the Human Rights Council, on October 1, 2015, involving the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, Office of Reparations, Special Courts and measures that would guarantee the non-recurrence of  enforced disappearances etc.

It goes without saying that the move was met with much opposition by nationalist groups, and this attempt to promote reconciliation and uphold accountability and human rights, has fallen apart, with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government withdrawing its co-operation to the resolution.

For politicians and successive governments, even this basic right of knowing what happened to a loved one is just another political tool;  promising redress while on the election campaign trail to harness the votes of these vulnerable folk, only to ignore them once in  office.

That those who championed the cause of these victims when it suited them, only to consistently ignore the issue once in power, is a clear indication that none of the political parties are sincerely committed to finding a lasting solution to an issue that burns a hole in the hearts of those affected.

Slain journalist Richard de Zoysa’s mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, once said that she was lucky, because she got to see the body of her son, unlike all the other parents who have been denied  that opportunity.  Never knowing whether or not a loved one is still amongst the living and if not, how and where his or her remains lie, and how their lives ended is mental torture no one should endure.

The least this government could do then, is to ease the economic burden of these families of the disappeared and recommence the payment of Rs. 6000 forthwith.

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