In Sri Lanka, all armed entities, official or unofficial, have abducted people, whether they were opponents or not. Many victims were killed or made simply to disappear. Main among those accused of abductions were the LTTE and the Government security forces, including the Police. All these groups are now denying their involvement in any of these disappearances of people.
It is against this backdrop that the Government has adopted a Bill to institute an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) in order to trace those who went missing during the activities of these armed forces and groups.
At the same time, in spite of abductions and extra-judicial killings having taken place during all armed conflicts in the country and all armed entities having been accused of those crimes, some politicians, especially the Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists, are protesting against the new law.
Despite the new Act having not mentioned in it anything specifically accusing the security forces of the country, the main argument of the Mahinda loyalists against the Act has been that it might be detrimental to those who fought the LTTE. Hence, one might contend that it is this very argument that points a finger at the soldiers who defeated the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit.
Another argument against the Act is that it was passed against the Parliamentary traditions as many members of the Parliament were not in their seats, when it was adopted. It is true.
However, if it is a must for all members to be in their seats, when the vote on a Bill or a motion is taken in the House, any Opposition can sabotage the passage of any Bill by their unruly behaviour.
This was not the first time that Parliament had passed a Bill amidst pandemonium. On October 6, 2007, the then Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara announced amidst pandemonium in the House that five monetary Bills over which the members were still exchanging blows, had been passed.
Then it had been the Rajapaksa regime that took advantage of a tense situation in the House and this time it was the UNP’s turn. It’s bad, but it is the reality.
The armed forces and the Police had been accused of hundreds of abductions during the two insurrections of the JVP and the thirty year long Tamil separatist war. They were accused of abducting people not only in their effort to defeat the northern and southern insurgents, but also for taking ransom.
There is a misconception that most number of people were abducted and killed during the war against the Tamil armed groups since early 1980s. However, the number of people believed to have been abducted by the State machinery and the pro-Government paramilitary groups such as the infamous PRRA and the Green Tigers during the JVP’s second insurrection in 1988/89 alone was said to be over 60,000 -a number far exceeding the number reported from the north and the east.
Symbolic among those abducted persons then were journalist H.E. Dayananda , Attorneys-at-law Wijedasa Liyanarachchi and Kanchana Abeypala.
The international human rights organisations, the United Nations, the Western countries or many so called human rights champions in Sri Lanka were not as concerned about the disappearances during the JVP’s two rebellions as they were during the war against the LTTE, in spite of the highest number of abductions and killings in history having taken place in the south. The main reason for this lopsided concern was the JVP’s affiliation to Communism and socialism, which are anathemas to the West and the so-called international human rights organisations.
However, the JVP too showed their brutality during their two insurrections by abducting and killing opponents, symbolic among their victims were Daya Pathirana, a student of the Colombo University and Mahinda Pathirana, a one-time bodyguard of the group’s founder leader Rohana Wijeweera.
The second place in abductions and killings in the country goes to the LTTE who deemed members of all other political entities in the country deserved death.
The abduction of the the highest number of people on a single day in the country took place on June 10, 1990 in the Eastern Province. The LTTE took more than 600 Police personnel who surrendered to them to the jungle and shot them dead. They kidnapped many well-to-do Tamils as well just for extracting ransom.
Even those who went to the forests in the east in search of their cattle or firewood were not spared when it came to extortion. When the Tigers drove away the entire Muslim population from the North in October 1990 it was reported that more than thirty Muslim businessmen had been detained in order to extract ransom and some of them never saw their loved ones again.
Abductions and extra-judicial killings by the paramilitary groups, which collaborated with the armed forces under various Presidents during the war such as the EPDP, Karuna group or the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) and the Razik Group have been internationally documented. They too hunted people for extortion.
All these abductions are now called disappearances to look into which many Governments since early 1990s had appointed several commissions.
The first such commission was appointed in 1992 by President R. Premadasa whose regime was accused of thousands of disappearances. And later President Chandrika Kumaratunga had appointed a National Missing Persons Commission as well as three zonal commissions, all of which ultimately went missing without producing results.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had several times alleged that Sri Lankan Governments appointed commissions, whenever international pressure mounted.
The Mahinda loyalists are correct when they allege that the Government was to institute the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) due to the pressure exerted by the US. President Maithripala Sirisena or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would never want to antagonise the armed forces by voluntarily taking measures to trace the persons disappeared during the war.
It was under the UNHRC resolution that Sri Lanka too co-sponsored along with the US last year that the Government took steps to set up the OMP. However, it was the same pressure that compelled President Mahinda Rajapaksa also to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 and the Paranagama Commission in 2013.
Interestingly, prior to the Paranagama Commission, commonly known as the Missing Persons Commission was appointed by the former President, his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had told the Daily Mirror in an interview that not a single person had gone missing during the war following which a six member Army court of inquiry also confirmed his claim.
Then why did the former President appoint the Paranagama Commission?
When the international community led by the US mounted its pressure again the former President gave a second mandate to the Paranagama Commission in 2014 to look into the allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws during the last phase of the war. That was very clearly giving in to the US sponsored UNHRC resolutions adopted in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
However, will the OMP be able to track down the disappeared people?
One has to infer the problems the OMP would have to face in its efforts to trace the whereabouts of thousands of people who disappeared by studying one single case, the Prageeth Ekneligoda case.
The OMP would be tasked to look into the cases of disappearances that had taken place during the JVP’s two insurrections, according to an amendment brought in by the JVP to the OMP Bill.
But that would be a gigantic task since many witnesses of those cases might be no more by now and most of the evidences would have been destroyed by relevant culprits as well as by nature with the passage of time.