Photography from Sri Lanka Brief
Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.
Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.
Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning
Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.
Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government
Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.
Empty promises of institutions and laws
The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.
These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.
But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.
Evolution of the protests
The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.
As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.
The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.
On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.
The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.
A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support.
The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.
The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.
The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these. Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.
The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention. The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances, but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.
Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.
It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.
But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.
This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.
[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)
[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017