Office of Missing Persons, if functioning could make a difference to their families

4.1.1A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied,” I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. “But”, said the man, “You can’t possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied “Made a difference to that one.”

Over the years, due to the absence of good governance, the country contaminated its international standing in the face of man-made disasters that occur frequently in Sri Lanka. The country with bad governance  prevailing in the country after it gained independence in 1948;  got badly corrupted at all levels and has been drifting from crisis to crisis, that took the country through a bloody civil war for over three decades from 1977 to 2009 causing tragedies of varying magnitudes. There was no doubt in 2009, every Sri Lankan was content to see end to all the destructions and killings associated with war; but to end the war the guns were silenced at a heavy price paid both at the battle ground and in other parts of the country with large human rights violations of a scale never seen before in the country. Naturally caused uproars both at national and international levels, as it was the biggest man-made tragedy to occur before the guns were silenced at ground zero. In the southern parts of the country, encouraged by the government the internal uproar soon turned into celebrations particularly in the south projecting the security forces as war heroes for ending the war. While the demoralized north-eastern population found alive at ground zero, having lost everything moved into temporary make shift camps as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and without any hope; began picking the pieces to resume their battered life, were counting their losses. Encouraged with the post war developments in NE region, government was quick to take that situation to their gain to conceal the human right violations, retained the total security forces without retrenching it to peace time level, failed to resolve the grievances of IPDs the people most affected by the war and began concentrating on activities to suppress them further. The government gave the first political blow to the battered people of the previously merged North-East Province by dividing the region back to North and East Provinces and on purpose appointed military men as Governors of the two demerged provinces. The next political blow was to pursue with its pre-war policy of changing the demography of the two provinces, which were dominated by the Tamil speaking minorities. The government taking advantage of the strength of security forces in these areas, began sponging out all traces of the enemy, so much so it made one wonder whom the security had fought for over three decades.

Thereafter, the whole country witnessed destruction of the resources in these provinces by the state and set about causing further damage the economy of the people in the region already battered by over three decades of war. A good example was the sale of KKS Cement factory as scrap iron that was shut down due to the war that came under the control of the military when the war ended. In 2011, with a view of reopening the factory a team from the manufacturer of the machinery arrived from German to inspect the factory and observed that the machinery was in prime condition even after two decades of forced shutdown, due to the civil war. The inspection reports from the manufacturer had assured that the machinery installed there by them in 1990 with a 100 year warranty would enable the facilities to be used until 2090 without even the need to replace any nuts or bolts on them. But in 2014, conflicting to this report a tender notice was issued calling for tenders to sell tons of scrap iron; when the expectant buyers went to inspect they saw the KKS cement factory machinery dismantled into pieces and loaded into containers, thereafter the factory’s machinery were sold as scrap iron. Thus an asset belonging to the entire nation and that could have given thousands of jobs and brought in billions of income to the country was destroyed during negative peace years. Many other state owned industries that were defunct by the war were left to decay. The security forces continued to control urban areas and retained control of both KKS Harbour and Palai Airport; the administration of all districts were controlled by the army, while navy kept control of fishing activities along the costs. All barriers at border crossings on the highways from North and East provinces to the rest of the country were as during the civil war period kept closed and operated as check-points by the security forces; making the two provinces as a military controlled region, which restricted the movement of people. The demining activities undertaken in the two provinces did further delay normalcy returning to the two provinces.

Then government began rebuilding the damaged infrastructures in the two provinces; with priorities being decided at the center on what and where renovation and rebuilding work to take place, without the participation of the provincial governments. A good example of this was the handling of a bottom up feasibility study report on Waste Land Management as entry point for the development of Vali-West in Jaffna District voluntarily prepared during the period of Governor’s Rule in the north by the writer, as the development consultant. First presented the concept of managing waste land as an entry point for development of Vali-West Division at a seminar held at Pradeshiya Sabha office, Chulipuram in August 2010 and subsequently a presentation was made to the Vali-West Divisional Secretariat in September 2010, which gave a holistic approach to develop the division utilizing the available resources. It included for water management introducing modern technology; introducing controls to conserve water and improve quality of drinking water; use of the waste land for wind power generation; Industries for value addition on agricultural produce; Housing and Waste management. The programme was to reactivate Agriculture and Fishing sectors in Vali-West, while power generation and waste management was to benefit the whole district. It will create employment and thereby increase the living standards of the population. Successful implementation of these projects would eliminate poverty and is therefore wise to allocate the funds for this programme. Recommended to form a management team to ensure maintenance of the developed waste land under the co-ordination of the Pradeshiya Sabha. Any revenue earned together with grant from state would ensure the sustainability of this programme. The multi-sector study was done over a period in consultations with all stakeholders in the division; finally was submitted to the Governor of Northern Province for approval. The Governor after reviewing the report in Colombo with the consultant, commended on the professional efforts, but did not approve the bottom-up proposal, instead the consultant received a personnel letter from the secretary of the Governor, stating that the proposal was beyond the development budget of the council. Perhaps it was, but not surprisingly the multi sector study report was scavenged by various central authorities for implementation, as the consultant did receive inquiries on components of that study from prospective developers on size of production plants, on suitable site selected for wind power generation and desalination plant included in the study. Then there was the Water to Jaffna project initiated by the state authorities, was a failure even before it started, for it could not provide water round the year and now thinking of desalination plants, while Jaffna peninsula continues to be deprived of quality drinking water.

It was this negative attitude of the government that caused the earlier international uproar in 2009 stemming after the war ended to turn into interferences causing resolutions to be passed by the world body, United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The member nations have noted that the latest UNHRC resolution, which gave Sri Lanka two more years to implement its promises, that was co-sponsored by 47 nations besides Sri Lanka; is a record number and underlines the global support the new government enjoys for its reconciliation and democratic reform program; believes that the government needs to focus and move forward with actions to implement the changes promised by them in 2015. True the government has taken steps with regard to the Right to Information and the Constitutional Assembly and of late on return of land to the war affected; but important issues on constitutional reform pertaining to devolution of power, replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act with legislation in line with international standards, reducing the security forces in NE region to peace time level as in the rest of the country and effectively tackling corruption and impunity remained unresolved. Of all the crisis, the one that was of most anxiety to the people in the North and East provinces and of least worry to the authorities was the failure of the government to trace those who had disappeared to resolve the concerns raised by the relatives of those gone missing during the armed conflict and during the peace years from 2009 to 2015. Though Sri Lankans were handed a golden opportunity in 2015 to all change this; two years have passed and the coalition government leaders are drifting along trying to manage crisis after crisis and the country is unable lift itself out of the mess.

The primary purpose for passing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act by the government was to enable the families of those who went missing to find out what happened to them. If it is found that those went missing were killed, there has to be accountability and consequences in the present domestic system, Sadly for this reason alone it appears that the government is in no hurry to start OMP for fear of antagonising the security forces. Furthermore, the present UNHRC’s resolution has no provision to set up international war crimes tribunals. The government must undertake to help the people at large on the need to address this particular grievances of the Tamil speaking communities, for a person whose relative is missing it is urgent to find the relative and go ahead with the implementation of OMP Act, which contain drastic provisions making way for offenders that may include political and military leaders to be hauled up with the present domestic system, let alone an international war crimes tribunal. Already, the state has been accumulating problems since 2009, with its risk-reduction reputation already spoiled, by retaining the number of security forces in peace time to that of war years that has contributed to this and many other issues such as the delay in returning the land in the control of the security forces to rightful owners. Not surprisingly the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) has opted to launch a ‘hartal’ in North East regions of the country on account of the families of the missing persons with a view to bring home the message on the urgency to settle the issue at the earliest.