‘Where are they?’ | Sunday Observer

‘Where are they?’

The first 20 minutes of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maiden press conference at the Shangri-La ballroom last Tuesday (15) seemed the most significant.

The former Defence Secretary was called upon to deal with questions from a contentious past, including allegations of rights abuses that dogged his tenure as the official in charge of the security establishment and continue to cloud his presidential campaign.

Following a rapid-fire session of questions and follow-ups directed at the SLPP candidate by journalists about war time accountability, Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged reporters at the news conference to “move on”.

“You’re talking about the past all the time, let’s talk about the future. I am trying to become the President of a future Sri Lanka,” he urged. Asked if it was possible to move ahead without addressing the past, the SLPP candidate said: “Sure, we can move on.”

Emphasising the need for development, education and jobs in the North and East, the SLPP candidate insisted that disappearances and human rights abuses were not the main concerns of people living in the war-affected regions.

Rajapaksa’s answers failed to address questions about missing people and the agony of families still searching for them, a decade after the war ended.

Questioned about Tamils who surrendered to the military when the war ended in May 2009, and were never seen or heard from again, the former Defence Secretary, who appeared to know the numbers by heart, claimed that 13,784 people had been rehabilitated, released and provided livelihoods. This rehabilitation “success” story had been hailed internationally, he added.

While many families in the North and East have repeatedly asserted that their loved ones who were surrendered to the military had never returned home, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that this was “only an allegation.”

The former Defence Secretary also claimed that there was no list of families who had provided names of missing people and the date of their surrender to the forces, contradicting official findings during his brother’s time in office.

At least two Presidential Commissions appointed by the SLPP candidate’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa during his presidency, have extensive details about dates and places of surrender at the conclusion of the war. (See Table).

In 2013, as many as 14 Habeas Corpus applications were filed in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, by families of LTTE cadres who had been surrendered to the army at the end of the war. In their petition to court, the families said that after trekking to Government-controlled area in Mullaitivu, they had heeded the request of the military and decided to surrender. According to the petition, the surrendees were lined up in a queue and were loaded in to the waiting buses. Family members had watched them being loaded into buses and were hopeful they would be returned after investigations, the petitioners said. Four years later, they had no word about their relatives.

In May 2010, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as calls mounted about accountability for grave rights abuses during the final phase of the war. In its final report, presented to President Rajapaksa in November 2011, the LLRC found that 1,018 persons who had surrendered to the military in May 2009 had disappeared.

Since so much of the testimony before the LLRC had involved disappearances, two years later, with international pressure mounting about war-time abuses, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the Presidential Commission to investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons. The findings of this Commission, set up in August 2013 and informally referred to as the Paranagama Commission, because it was chaired by retired High Court Judge Maxwell Paranagama, were also damning about the issue of surrenderees.

“In evidence taken by this Commission at public sittings, it has been thus clearly established that several individuals who handed themselves in or who were handed in to the SLA were put on buses or other transport and that those individuals now remain among the disappeared,” the Paranagama Commission noted in its final report.

The SLPP candidate at the news conference insisted that there was a distinction between missing people and those who had surrendered during the end of the war. He said that 4000 military personnel were also missing. In the intensity of the conflict, when bodies of the dead could not be retrieved, these persons were referred to as “missing”, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed.

Following the claims made by the former Defence Secretary, the Tamil language daily Tamil Mirror published the findings of a Right to Information application it had lodged with the Sri Lanka Army, that had then been directed to the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation earlier this year. In August 2019, the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, responding to the RTI from the newspaper, said that according to records maintained in his bureau, 10,790 persons had surrendered on May 19, 2009, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. In its report, the Tamil newspaper noted that based on these figures and the precise numbers provided by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the October 15 press briefing that 13,784 persons had surrendered to the military at the end of the war, 2994 persons were unaccounted for.

The SLPP candidate would have none of it. According to Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan Government under his brother’s command, had the “most successful rehabilitation programme”. No other country in the world had a rehabilitation programme to compare, he insisted. “There are people, when they go to war, people go missing.”

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