Top Presidential Candidates failing families of disappeared | Sunday Observer

Top Presidential Candidates failing families of disappeared

Last week, at an election rally, the United National Party (UNP)/New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa referred to questions by a journalist to his main opponent, Gotabaya Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in relation to Tamils who surrendered to the army at the end of the war and disappeared. Instead of dealing with war criminals responsible, Sajith turned them into “war heroes” and used the question to attack Gotabaya. For him, like Gotabaya, the substance of the questions raised, or the despair and struggles of families searching for loved ones, didn’t seem to matter. Earlier in the week, Gotabaya had tried to evade the questions put to him, but eventually, he denied and tried to show it was a past issue, ignoring that the search for disappeared loved ones is very much an issue of the present and future.

Essentially, both Gotabaya and Sajith blamed others and avoided the question of what they would tell the families of those disappeared who are also Sri Lankan voters.

Disappearances in Sri Lanka and the military

According to the government, there have been more than 65,000 complaints of disappearances to government bodies. In late 1980s many Sinhalese youth disappeared in the context of the second JVP insurrection under UNP government. Since the 1990s, many Tamils disappeared in context of war in the North and East, under both UNP and SLFP led governments.

Many families of disappeared – Sinhalese and Tamils – believe the Sri Lankan military and allied paramilitary groups are responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones. Some families are even able to name persons and units. A special committee of the Human Rights Commission has found evidence of disappeared persons having been taken into custody by the army and no evidence of them being released or detained elsewhere or that they are alive. One of the first convictions for disappearances was of army personnel for disappearing a group of Sinhalese students in Embilipitiya during Sajith’s father’s presidency.

More recently, we have seen evidence implicating Army and Navy personnel presented to courts in relation to disappearances that happened when Gotabaya was Defense Secretary under his brother’s presidency. We now have a Chief of Defense Staff who had been arrested after being accused of harboring a suspect and threatening a witness in a pending court case related to disappearances and an Army Commander who was in charge of the unit that handled the surrender of Tamils who later disappeared. Are these the “war heroes” that Gotabaya wants to release if he becomes president and Sajith wants to defend?

The disappearance of hundreds of Tamils after surrendering to the army at the end of the war is probably one of the most blatant and largest incidents in Sri Lanka’s tragic history of disappearances, with absolute impunity despite compelling eyewitness testimonies. Habeas corpus cases are still pending in courts.

Rajapakse appointed post war commissions of inquiry such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the Paranagama Commission have both recommended investigations into these. In June 2018, the Chairman of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) tweeted that he had “clearly told families of the disappeared that the issue of surendees disappearing is high on the OMP list of priorities”. The first interim report of the OMP in August 2018 also promised “prioritisation of the cases of persons who have reported to have surrendered to the military in May 2009 and then disappeared”. But for families, there have been little or no results.

Challenges

Elections can and must be times of hope. But so far, the 2019 presidential election campaigns have not offered any hope for Sri Lanka’s families of the disappeared. Three of the top four candidates (Sajith, Anura and Mahesh) are backed by civil society formations, which seem to have failed so far to convince their chosen candidates to prioritize or even make clear commitments in relation to the disappeared and their families. Even the only female presidential candidate has not come out in support of families of the disappeared - one of the country’s strongest victim-led movements in recent times.

Families of those disappeared – especially of those who surrendered and disappeared – have waged desperate but determined and courageous struggles to find out what happened to their surrendered sons, daughters, husbands, grandchildren etc. They have met President, Ministers, UN officials and foreign diplomats, spoken to countless journalists, researchers, filed cases in courts.

More than 50 have passed away since the beginning of continuous roadside protests – now nearing 1000 days. Others are ailing and more may die without knowing what happened to their loved ones. We must not let them down by allowing presidential candidates like Gotabaya and Sajith to sidestep this question by blaming others and using “war hero” rhetoric.

Comments