OMP : enabling human recovery | Sunday Observer

OMP : enabling human recovery

When the author of the Mahavamsa commits each of his chapters to “…the serene joy of the pious…”, the venerable thera’s blessings for the life of our island society reaches down across the millennia to our times. Those who are ‘pious’ will appreciate the narrative and message of each chapter with resultant ‘joy’.

And it is by remaining true to our Dhamma that our island society has survived kingly warfare, feudal iniquity, and colonial plunder, and, today, faces up to political repression, insurgency, crime, corruption and climate change. We will continue to flourish as long as we remain ‘pious’, always building society to the highest standards of civilization.

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) formally established last week is part of our society’s civilized response to decades of immense political and social violence that have caused much tragic loss to various sections of our society. Scores of thousands of people of various social classes and ethnic groups have died or been rendered missing in incidents of violence, including insurgency and counter-insurgency.

After one of the most devastating internal wars in the island’s history, the commitment of all salient sections of our society is to reconcile the social divisions engendered by that conflict. Indeed, even as insurgency waxed and waned, sections of civil society and our political leadership laboured over the political and social processes and mechanisms that would address both, the causes of insurgency as well as its tragic impacts.

Creative adjustments to our political system mark high points of this endeavour for national peace and social healing. At the next level, the range of institutional and administrative mechanisms being devised indicates both the profound goals as well as the comprehensive scope of the national endeavour for social reconciliation and healing.

The modernization of our system of agriculture and irrigation required wholly new systems – dams, reservoirs, canals, power grids. The modernization of our polity and society requires innovation and the creation of numerous new institutions, new social values and norms, and, wholly new areas of political culture and practice.

Our national constitution is being fine-tuned to meet the political needs of our times: collective commitments of communities, social rights and responsibilities. The impacts of the war have required numerous mechanisms and programs for the socio-economic recovery of affected areas and communities. Rebuilding of economic infrastructure goes in tandem with rebuilding of communities.

A key element of social healing is the healing of families ravaged by war and political violence. The sheer scale of human tragedy requires special national mechanisms for this healing. Rehabilitation of the affected must be accompanied by a closure of the human loss of those dead or missing.

This requires a huge effort in the investigation of such cases, ascertaining of the facts, recognition of accountability – where feasible – of perpetrators and, the compensation and consoling of the next-of-kin. This is what the Office of Missing Persons is designed to do. While the Office itself does not exercise judicial powers, it has the power to channel cases to the courts for settlement or prosecution. More importantly, it will help citizens ascertain the fate of their missing kin.

The OMP, which will be led by a council selected by the Constitutional Council and appointed by the President, is not an institution addressing a single past tragedy, such as, the separatist insurgency and counter-insurgency. Despite the claims of fear-mongers who portray everything in terms of ethnic rivalry, the OMP cannot be used against any segment of the state or nation.

Given our society’s enlightened outlook, post-war, the OMP is a response to what has been recognized as an on-going affliction of Sri Lanka’s body politic: extreme political and social violence.

The recently-ended separatist insurgency is but one aspect of this affliction, albeit the most devastating one. But, this country has previously suffered other insurgencies and equally ferocious counter-insurgencies. The entrenchment of authoritarian politics over decades and the practice of brutal repression has resulted in severe violence becoming a feature of politics in the country.

The OMP is not the first attempt to deal with this fall-out of political and social violence. Many temporary commissions and agencies have been set up in the past – notably, after previous insurgencies – and functioned with varying degrees of success. The new Office, however, is being equipped adequately to deal with an on-going problem and cope with the scale of past violence.

If the scale of violence meted out by elements in the state security apparatus is certainly the biggest, numerous non-state actors – from anti-government political groups to criminal gangs – have contributed their own violence. People have not only been abducted or ‘disappeared’ by pro-government or anti-government political groups. They have also been abducted and ‘disappeared’ by criminal gangs and contract killers – sometimes working at the behest of politicians.

Thus, the Office of Missing Persons will be a permanent place to go to for citizens who suffer the loss of kin and friends or colleagues who have been tragically victimized by violence in a manner in which their whereabouts or very survival is unknown.

The OMP will be an institution that will help provide clarity over the fate of loved ones. The surviving kin can then go on with their lives with a new certainty.