Sri Lanka was elected today, 06 June 2018, to one of four (04) seats available for the Asia-Pacific, in the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, for the period 2018-2022, at the election that took place in Paris during the 7 th General Assembly of UNESCO.
The attention of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) is drawn to several articles in the media as well as social media quoting its Chairperson, Mr. Saliya Pieris as having told protesting families at Mulaithivu that the OMP can release the name list of the disappeared during the final stages of the war or those who surrendered to the security forces, if a written request is submitted. This is not accurate.
The task of balancing the sensitivities in the South and North is indeed a tightrope walk. This unenviable mission of President Maithripala Sirisena was aptly described by Venerable Kollupitiye Sangharakkitha Thera of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara at the ‘Aaloka Pooja’ to invoke blessings on the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the motherland. He said that President Sirisena worked for reconciliation with utmost dedication and honesty, and even risked his southern voter base for this policy.
“People and the country cannot progress through divisions and separations,” President Sirisena said. Everybody should get together and work in understanding with each other and find a solution for this question. That is what is required for the country today. Many people who mess up the problems don’t have any ability to solve them. I invite the Venerable Maha Sangha, other religious leaders, scholars and intellectuals to sit around one table and discuss about this matter. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the sound of gunfire is not heard once again. Everybody should take the responsibility to build the economy for all the people in a fair society.”
In these circumstances, another pit was dug by the well-meaning, but outspoken, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne with his comparison of soldiers, JVP militants, and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists. Although he was correct in stating that all of them are citizens of Sri Lanka, there is a distinct difference between a soldier and a terrorist. His ill-timed statement caused uproar and the extreme nationalist elements in the South were jubilant because they could use it as a weapon to attack the Government, without considering about the long-term harm that it would cause reconciliation efforts. Finally, President Sirisena was compelled to intervene. Without mincing words, the President said some people did not understand the difference between a war hero and a terrorist.
Steps for reconciliation
The Unity Government has taken many steps for reconciliation. Thousands of acres of land in the North and East, temporarily acquired by the Army during the conflict were returned to the original owners and now the armed forces retain only a small extent of land essential for the security and defence of the military bases. Furthermore, singing of the national anthem in Tamil is in practice today, despite the objections from the extremist elements in the South. The Government also deviated from the practice of a grand victory day celebration with pomp and pageantry, as it could hurt Tamil sentiments. The Ranaviru Commemoration Day is now being held as a commemoration of the members of the forces who sacrificed their lives for the motherland, and not as a victory day.
While the Government has taken these bold steps toward reconciliation, it is distressing that similar reciprocal signals are lacking from Tamil leaders. The belligerent move by none other than Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, to hold a commemoration ceremony to remember the dead on the death anniversary of LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is a case in point. Hitherto, the 18 May remembrance was held on a small scale, without the participation of the Chief Minister. This year, not only did the erudite former Supreme Court Judge led the ceremony, but he also allowed youth clad in black to hold a motorcycle parade. It is surprising that a person like Wigneswaran has resorted to such tactics, which could lead to another youth uprising, that Sampanthan, Sumanthiran, and Wigneswaran may not be able to control.
Unfortunately, Wigneswaran and other Tamil leaders have become hostages to Tamil Diaspora politics. The West-based Diaspora leaves no stone unturned when it comes to attacking the Government. Last week, British Member of Parliament, Hywel Williams raised the issue of former Defence Attaché, Brigadier Priyanka Fernando in the British Parliament. Fernando allegedly made a threatening gesture at members of the Tamil Diaspora, who demonstrated in front of the High Commission. Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field said that he had met Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in April and “the former Defence Attaché’s position was formally ended by the Government of Sri Lanka on 15 April.”
Last week, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne was asked by a section of the media to specify if civilians were killed in the battle against the LTTE. He replied truthfully, that in any war, some civilians were bound to perish. He failed to mention that when the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka met in the British Parliament, Michael Morris, Baron Naseby PC expressed the hope that, as a result of the debate in Parliament, the United Kingdom (UK) will recognize the truth that no one in the Sri Lankan Government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians.“Furthermore, the UK must now get the United Nations (UN) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva to accept a civilian casualty level of 7,000 to 8,000, not 40,000. On top of that, the UK must recognize that this was a war against terrorism, so the rules of engagement are based on international humanitarian law, not the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),” Baron Naseby said.
Dr. Senaratne could have used Baron Naseby’s statement to clarify the issue and shut the mouths of those prejudiced media personnel.
President Sirisena appointed Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana to lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in March 2018 in Geneva, and the Minister reaffirmed the country’s total commitment to the reconciliation process. He briefed the Council about the steps taken, including the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), the release of lands acquired by the military and other developments.
While the reconciliation process is progressing in all fronts, it is surprising to see the growth of hostilities in the North, especially when it comes from a once respected Supreme Court Judge turned Chief Minister, Wigneswaran.
President Maithripala Sirisena paid a brief, but highly result oriented visit to Iran last week. He held talks on bilateral issues and regional and international affairs with President Hassan Rouhani. They agreed to enhance bilateral ties and boost trade and economic cooperation in many fields between the two countries.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” – Robert Frost
President Maithripala Sirisena, addressing the new sessions of Parliament last week said, the last three years has demonstrated that the country is still lacking in political and social maturity that is needed to realize the objectives of a coalition government and added that the power struggle in the Government and political parties in the last three years had driven the people to despair. He acknowledged the failure of the two partners of this consensual government to duly appreciate their own respective roles in the coalition arrangement has led to the present confusion and frustration of the people.
A day prior to making the policy statement in Parliament, the President clarified in his May Day speech, “I am not retiring in 2020. There are so many things to be done.” What he clearly stated was that he has many more goals to achieve and his task as President is only half finished.
He emphasized that, we, as a Government, should fulfil our responsibilities under a strong political thought, which gives prominence to our heritage, our great culture and our unique identities, in the journey of rising as a nation while achieving economic prosperity. “I believe that moving forward; we must work with a vision that represents our heritage and the needs of the common people.”
Outlining the economic policies, he said it is essential that we lead the country towards entrepreneurial management and adapt policies attractive to local and foreign entrepreneurs in order to build a strong and modern Sri Lanka. He emphasized that steps should be taken to beat the so-called ‘economy of friends’ and to build a ‘society and people-friendly economy’. The essence of the economic policy was to ensure an atmosphere conducive to prosperity, where everyone can prosper.
As President Sirisena rightly stated, to overcome the challenges faced by the country, the power struggle between the two main parties in this Coalition Government – UNP and SLFP – must cease.
Even though consensual governance is practiced in many countries in the world, it is a foreign concept to Sri Lanka. In the past three years, there were many occasions where the two parties in the coalition were working at cross purposes. This was due to deliberate political strategies on the one hand and lack of understanding as to how a coalition government should function on the other. The President appealed to the disgruntled elements in the two Parties to desist from attacking each other and work as a single unit for the benefit of the people for the remainder of their tenure, because the Unity Government has promises to deliver.
There is no doubt that the Government succeeded in the path towards establishing a democratic and humanitarian governance which is responsive to citizens and ascertained a path to fulfil the fundamental needs of the people. However, there are many more challenges confronting the country. It is important to pay serious attention to those challenges when choosing the new path of the Government. Furthermore, the new path of the Government should help the poor overcome poverty, and achieve efficiency in public service while delivering a people friendly service. This needs adopting new policies, implementing strategies and making crucial management decisions.
We must commit ourselves to the fast development that the people hope for, including the educated youth, the President stated. This can never be postponed to the future. For the past economic growth, achieving an efficient cooperation between public and private sector, increasing productivity and competition, optimizing resources to increase direct foreign investment, consolidating the country’s fiscal condition are critical.
As President Sirisena pointed out, another unfinished task is true reconciliation and a lasting solution to ensure communal harmony. The steps are necessary to further strengthen rule of law, democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech in the society, recognition of equal rights based on aspirations of the Tamil people, ensure the wellbeing and socio-cultural needs of the Muslim community and empower the upcountry Tamil community socially and economically.
One of the main platform promises during the Presidential election campaign in November 2014 to January 2015 was that stern action would be taken against bribery and corruption. The Government vowed to build efficient State governance free of corruption and fraud. The President’s absolute commitment to fight against corruption is evident from courageous action to appoint Presidential Commission to probe Central Bank bond issue. It became all the more evident when his Chief of Staff, I. H. K. Mahanama and State Timber Corporation Chairman P. Dissanayake who faced bribery charges were sacked immediately. Furthermore, he did not hesitate to suspend the new Chairman of State Timber Corporation, Anuruddha Polgampola, when he came to know about Polgampola’s previous arrests on misappropriation charges.
In his speech, the President has signalled a new beginning for the Unity Government and he also invited the Opposition to assist the Government, shedding the politics of hate and disruption. There is a need for collective efforts to overcome the challenges faced by the country.
Although every promise could not be fulfilled in the last three and a half years, there is an acknowledgement that the task of restoring the Sri Lankan Society as a democratic, humane, and accountable society has been completed successfully during the last three and a half years, which was the main demand of the people of this country who gave the verdict to this Government on 8 January, 2015.
The whole country today wants to achieve the freedom of prosperity. Standing against bribery, corruption and waste is the self defence of a nation, for its future. The people expect the period beginning from the new session of Parliament would provide an opportunity to achieve the noble goals outlined: Ensure economic prosperity of the people, eradicate poverty, generate new employment opportunities for the youth, further strengthen the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech in the society, meet the requirements of people with special needs, and establish a sustainable development vision by bringing together all ethnic and religious groups.(PMD)
The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) is launching a series of regional-level consultations,commencing in Mannar on Saturday, 12th May 2018. The consultations are a vital step in the process to operationalise the functions of the OMP in its search for missing and disappeared persons.
As defined in the Office on Missing Persons Act, a missing person is someone whose fate or whereabouts are reasonably believed to be unknown or unaccounted for and missing. But for many of our people today the definition of a missing person is something more personal, more perplexing and more painful. For them family now means an empty chair at a table, clothes hanging on a rack that have not been worn in years, an embrace that is forgotten because no one thought it would be the last, hurt deep in the heart that would never be diminished with the passage of time and a vacuum that could never be filled. A missing person is a loved one to whom a goodbye was never said and the endless stream of questions that follow their absence. How did they go missing? Where are they today? Will I get the chance to see them again?
Decades later it is not fair that they must still suffer the plight of not knowing. It cannot be easy to turn away from their pain.
The search for the missing began nearly 30 years ago. The first commission investigating missing persons was set up as far back as 1991, but the story of the missing thus far has not been one of hope or reassurance. It is a story marred with helplessness, and un-kept promises and an endless long road on which they stumble along. Individuals went missing in the 1970s during the political insurrections of the south. Young lives were dispelled with no one to account for their absence. This was not the end. 30 years of civil war held in its grasp the lives of so many, marking no difference between race, cast, or creed. Families in the North and East whose children were taken from their homes, who were split apart by terrorism, and soldiers around the island who never made it back to their camps and loved ones; these are few of the thousands who are missing today. They are lives unaccounted for that need accounting.
Over the years, efforts have been made to address the issue of the missing. Multiple commissions were set up in 1991, 1994, and 2013 to conduct investigations into the missing. However, these commissions did not follow through to completion. One primary challenge was that investigations were limited to certain time periods and did not address all contexts during which individuals went missing. The lack of proper data and information led to incomplete and inaccurate statistics. Investigations were ineffective and inconclusive and therefore many cases were left pending. According to a report made by the ICRC, there were as many as 16,000 cases of missing persons remaining as recently as in 2016. 7 years after the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka had not yet successfully addressed this primary and pressing issue of its people.
It was essential after all those years to finally find a remedy for the problem of the missing and a preventive for its re-occurrence in the future.The Act to establish the OMP was passed in parliament in 2016, and with a 7 member commission is ready to begin investigations into all reported cases of missing persons. This includes not only those missing in relation to the conflict that took place in the North and East Provinces, but also those missing during the political and civil unrest in the South, armed forces or police who are identified as missing in action, and all enforced disappearances during and in the aftermath of the conflict. This is the chance for the OMP to address grievances made by those of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in all geographical areas of the country. Establishing this office is for the sole purpose of searching for the missing which is a need for our nation.
The office is a transparent and independent body. There is no prosecution through the OMP. Its main purpose is to bring relief to affected families who are suffering the loss of loved ones. What matters is that these families, be it from the North or South get a chance to search for the truth about what happened, receive answers to their questions, and hopefully find relief from the years of pain and uncertainty.
The office has been set up based on the recommendations made by the Consultation Task Force on the Act to establish the OMP. This task force proactively engaged with the victims and affected families around the island, getting their feedback and concerns regarding what can be done to redress this issue. It is their views and worries that matter. Without paying heed to their concerns, the OMP cannot address their grievances.
It has been a long and painful wait for the victims and their families. For parents who lost their children, for families who lost their loved ones, this Office on Missing Persons is a beacon of hope. It is a chance for the answers they have been waiting a long time for, and a necessity for a nation that will resolve and reconcile.