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PROBLEM OF MISSING PERSONS WILL PERSIST UNTIL ADDRESSED -- Jehan Perera

Problems can be denied as non-existent, they can be blamed on others, or they can be faced up to and addressed so that they are resolved.  There is a story from Columbia, which has been wracked for many decades by civil war with tens of thousands of extra judicial killings and disappearances.   In early 2002 there was a systematic rise in violence.  It started with killings and disappearances of young men.  A woman came back to her home after working in the family coffee plantation and found her husband had disappeared.   She checked with the local military commander about her husband who denied any knowledge and then threatened her for asking and sent her home.  Months passed into years but without any news.  



In time the government announced a new peace plan. The woman’s husband’s brother took a risk and decided to go back to the farms and see if anything of a coffee harvest might be possible.  He found the fields abandoned and walked along the coffee plants they had seeded and cared for in earlier decades.  Late in the afternoon he walked along the field closes to the family home, he stopped in his tracks.  Something was calling.  His eyes went to a cracked area on dry ground.  He was frozen for minutes and later he would say, ‘His blood called my name.  I heard a voice.  Someone calling me like, “I am here.  Get me out”.

At first light the next morning he dug around the opening.  A grave revealed itself at the bottom; in a square open box he found dry bones.  On top of the bones, neatly folded, a shirt and pants retained their colour and form.   When they re-opened the box it took only a single glance to confirm that they knew.  “The clothes, the teeth – it is our father,” the woman’s son would tell his mother.  The blood called unexpectedly.  “We know where the graves are located,” the community was able to say.  (Excerpts from John Paul and Anjela Jill Lederach, When Blood and Bones Cry Out. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp 34-40).  The wounds have to be healed, or else memories will not die and voices from beyond will continue to speak.

MASS GRAVES
At the end of last year, a mass grave was found in Matale, in the central hills in Sri Lanka by workers at a construction site.  This discovery is far from the war zones of the North and East. It is widely believed that this mass grave contains the remains of those who were killed extra judicially during the JVP insurrection of 1988-89 when the present opposition party was in power.  Like in the case of the government’s last war against the LTTE, it is still not known how many perished in the JVP insurrection.  There was no counting the numbers, only guesses, most common of which puts the figure at 60,000. But it could be more, it could be less.  There has never been any accounting or accountability for what happened during that period of terror.  

So far there has been no immediate or publicized governmental action on the issue of the mass grave found in Matale.  If those buried there were those killed during the JVP insurrection, it would mean that they would mostly be of Sinhalese ethnicity.  The JVP insurrection was by Sinhalese from the underclass who revolted against the inequalities and injustices that they described as “Curd for Colombo, inferior Cucumber for us.”  If past practice with regard to accountability and truth seeking in the case of the two JVP insurrections (1971 and 1988-89) is to be any guide, it is unlikely that there will be any independent and credible investigation into what happened.

In this context the suppression of a public protest with regard to the disappearances that occurred in the last war against the LTTE goes in tandem with the lack of interest to seek the truth of what happened during the JVP insurrection.  A protest to be held in Colombo, intended to culminate in the handing over of a petition to the UN office, organized by northern civic groups under the banner of the Families of Disappeared was blocked by the police in Vavuniya in the North only last week.  According to participants, the reason given by the Police was that they could not guarantee the safety of the travelers in the night. The family members were surrounded by Police and did not allow them to leave. The buses they were going to travel on were blocked by Police trucks.  When contacted by the organizers, the Inspector General of Police had said he was not aware of what had transpired and shown polite interest.

While the family members were deprived of the psychological satisfaction of handing over their petition to the UN office on behalf of their missing loved ones, this petition can be handed over in a less public manner.  This act of suppression will add to the negative image of the government that is prevalent internationally and will not ease the grievance that is burning inside the relatives of the missing persons. Those who disappeared in the last phase of the Eelam war were Tamil. The victims of the Matale mass grave were Sinhalese.  They both share a common fate. The discovery of the Matale mass grave is a reminder that the past will intrude into the present in unexpected ways, and this will continue into the future until the problem is addressed.  

CONTINUING PROBLEM
The fact that there are many thousands of missing persons in Sri Lanka is known within Sri Lanka and internationally.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President has called for special investigatory mechanisms to be set up to investigate into this problem.  Therefore, blocking a protest regarding a problem that is not secret cannot be justified at all from a democratic perspective.  It was both a denial of the right of movement and the right of free expression, both of which are basic to the democratic system of government.    President Mahinda Rajapaksa would know this well, having been a person who himself carried files of missing persons secretly to Geneva to lobby with the UN Human Rights Committee when he was in the political opposition nearly two decades ago.  

The issue of war crimes and human rights violations during the course of the war continues to be raised internationally putting the Sri Lankan government on the defensive.  The latest is the proposed US resolution at the ongoing UN Human Rights Council session that calls for establishing an independent international investigation into these issues.  It was to this forum that President Rajapaksa carried files of missing persons during the JVP insurrection of 1988-89 as an opposition parliamentarian seeking redress from the international community. It was an occasion to name and shame the then government for its poor human rights record.  Ironically, the last four years have seen his government under intense pressure at this same forum on account of its own human rights record.

Sections of the international community along with the Tamil Diaspora will continue to press the politicians of the countries they reside in to take action against the Sri Lankan government.  Many of those in the Diaspora lost relatives who were either in the LTTE or were simply civilians who went missing or died in the last phase of the war.  The country needs to deal with the issue of missing and disappeared persons.  When the recourse to justice within the country fails, it is inevitable in this globalised world that an appeal would go to the international community.  As a result there will soon be one more UN resolution that highlights the problems within Sri Lanka and speaks of wounds that need to be healed, memories that will not die and voices from beyond that continue to speak.

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