Waiting for answers.

Nine hundred days and counting; that is how long families in the North and the East have been waiting patiently to hear news of their loved ones missing during and soon after the end of the thirty year conflict that pitched the Sri Lankan government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, (LTTE), who were fighting for a separate State.

For those in the rest of the country who have also lost loved ones during armed conflicts that flared up from time to time, since the 1970’s, the wait has been even longer.

The 76 year old woman, who sought recourse through the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), when it was first established in 2018, may never have an answer about the fate of her husband who went missing in July 1983.  In her appeal to the OMP, all she asks is for closure, said its Chairman Saliya Pieris, because she would like to “offer alms for him before she dies, and stop wearing the Red mark on her forehead which denotes that she is a married Hindu woman whose husband is alive.”

As ‘The Tent”, a documentary film by Kannan Arunasalam, screened in Colombo to mark  International Day of the Disappeared, which  falls on August 30 each year, depicts, it’s the  women who suffer the consequences.   “The Tent” relates the story of wives and mothers of the missing in Mullaitivu, Northern Sri Lanka, who take turns awaiting news of their family member, in a temporary shed set up across the road from a local government building. On one half of the screen, the film juxtaposes the monthly protests conducted by the families of the disappeared, perhaps the only instances when the media shows an interest.

For the families, the wait is endless, with no real interest by successive governments to provide closure or to bring perpetrators to book.

Indeed, political parties take turns in using the issue in their election campaigns, as Sandya Ekneligoda, whose journalist husband has been missing since January 2010 pointed out, during the discussion held after the screening of the film.  In the late ‘80’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, (current Leader of the Opposition) appealed to the UN against human rights abuses by the then government.  But in 2012, when the Rajapaksa’s were in power, even the memorial for the missing built in 1994 had been bulldozed to make way for the beautification of the city.

The only good that has come out of the current government, which also used the enforced disappearances that occurred during the previous regime for political gain, has been the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons.  However, Ekneligoda stated that even the recommendations of the interim report of the OMP released last year are yet to be implemented.  The onus, she said is on the OMP to ensure there is closure for the families of the disappeared.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case for the vast number of persons, simply seeking answers about their missing loved ones.   Many have passed away not knowing what became of their family members, others have fallen ill.  Some women have been left to fight the battles without the support of their husbands, who have not only given up the fight, but have left their families, observed another speaker at the discussion.

That the political will to bring about closure to this sad situation is lacking is clear, as Pieris points out, simply allocating monies for the OMP in the annual budget is not adequate. If the OMP is to conduct its work as expected, for a start, it needs well trained investigators, something the Office seems to lack.

He minced no words when he quite rightly stated that a policeman charged with accepting a bribe of Rs. 50 would be interdicted, while those in the armed forces accused of various human rights abuses such as enforced disappearances are promoted.

That’s an incisive commentary on the current government’s behaviour, whose election platform amongst other promises, was to bring to book all those involved in the many abductions and murders that took place under the Rajapaksa regime.  In fact, a high ranking military official facing charges of assisting an officer involved in the disappearance of several youth is yet to be removed from his position.

To its credit, the current Parliament ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, in 2016, the same year it passed a Bill to set up the Office of Missing Persons.  A Bill passed in 2018 criminalises enforced disappearance in the Penal Code.  Like all else, the government seems to believe that, that is commitment and appeasement enough!

As Pieris also stated, political will apart, behaviour of the media, particularly the Sinhala media and some sections of the population refuse to accept that enforced disappearances have even taken place in Sri Lanka.  Posts on Facebook for instance, said Peiris even encourage the disappearances of those who the commentators believe are “disloyal” to the country.  Their theory is that the country should move on, but for those seeking information about their loved ones, it is easier said than done.

Failing to abide by promises made.
Failing to abide by promises made.

Enforced disappearances are not unique to Sri Lanka, says Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s (AI) Regional Director for South Asia, but the intensity cannot be compared with other countries in the region.  AI which sponsored the screening of ‘The Tent” in Colombo,  states in its handout that “ In Sri Lanka, the cruel history of enforced disappearance continues to cast a shadow as justice is denied to as many as 100,000 families.”

In its estimation, there have been ‘at least 60,000 and as many as 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka’; these are the Sinhala youth suspected of leftist leanings in the late 1980’s, Tamils believed to be involved with the LTTE between 1983 and 2009, human rights defenders, aid workers, government critics, prominent community leaders and journalists.  They are all victims of police, military and paramilitary forces and government death squads.  AI adds that in 2016, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga had acknowledged receiving “at least 65,000 complaints of disappearances.”

That nearly a 100,000 cases need to be solved is proof enough that the issue cuts across every community of this country, not only the Tamils or those deemed ‘unpatriotic’, by those who cry themselves hoarse to indicate otherwise and to intimidate victims and obstruct proceedings.

Unfortunately, it’s their negative voices that always win the day, as governments greedy for power, do nothing to counter the vociferous protests led by religious leaders, politicians and many others whose misplaced notion of nationalism is to bring up the bogey of imagined international conspiracies each time there is an attempt for reconciliation between the many communities that call Sri Lanka home.

It’s time that Sri Lankans understand, that locating the missing is not about appeasing the international community or admitting that human rights abuses occur in this country.  It’s about working together in the process of healing that has torn this country apart, several times over.


“The Tent: is a co-commission supported by the British Council and the Arts Council England, in its New North and South initiative that works with eleven arts organisations in North of England and South Asia.


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