Families pray for closure, Missing Person’s Office promises trust

The daily routine of Mutthan Theiventhiran, 72, involves first praying at the Kilinochchi Kandaswamy Kovil in the morning where he seeks divine help for the return of his missing son and then joining fellow protesters at a temporary shed near the kovil. This has been his routine for at least a year.

Theiventhiran’s forehead bears “Vibhooti,’’ the sacred ash he receives after prayers, reflecting his devotion to the cause of finding out about his son who was injured in the last stages of war in 2009 and admitted to hospital by the military but has been missing since.

Theiventhiran is one among thousands of relatives of missing people whose protests have continued in five other places in Vavuniya, Maruthankerni and Mullaithivu, is search of answers from the government.

“I won’t be here for a long time protesting, but I want to know what happened to my son before anything happens to me. From the bottom of my heart, a voice keeps telling me that he is alive, somewhere. My experimence with the gods, and the assertions by soothsayers confirmed, it eventually,” Theiventhiran told the Sunday Times, noting that there are at least eight other elderly parents who have died not knowing of the fate of their children.

Many of them claim that the Office of Missing Persons will only delay answers to their concerns and they are sceptical ahead of Geneva sittings.

“We are not protesting for over one year here expecting any livelihood assistance on this issue. We want to know the truth and we suspect that OMP is not going to do that as we were not consulted before it was institutionalized,” he said, questioning why it took three years for the government to set up this office.

By the end of the last month, President Maithripala Sirisena handed over three-year appointment letters to the seven member OMP office headed by Saliya Pieris, president’s counsel. The office also includes Ms Jayatheepa Punniyamoorthy, Major General (retired) Mohanti Antonette Peiris, Dr Sriyani Nimalka Fernando, Mirak Raheem, Somasiri K Liyanage and Kanapathipillai Venthan as members.

The OMP which will be an independent permanent body answerable to Parliament will investigate and bring to closure cases of disappearances reported during two insurrections and the war against terrorism. The Sri Lanka Treasury also allocated Rs 1.3 billion in the last national budget for its operations.

With the OMP setup now, the commissioners aim to make this office a trustworthy institution acting on behalf of victims.

“As the OMP we are conscious of the doubts entertained by the families of the missing and disappeared who have long waited for answers on the fate of their loved ones.

Given the number of commissions and committees set up under previous governments that were tasked with documenting individual cases, identifying patterns and making recommendations, we will try to ensure that we use as much material as possible in our work,” chairman of OMP Saliya Pieris told the Sunday Times.

He pointed out that the OMP is meant to be different in tracing the whereabouts and fate of the missing and disappeared. It is a permanent office that will focus on all disappearances throughout the country and from any conflict or major political upheaval. “We will try to ensure victim-centeredness through ensuring consultation and inclusion of the affected persons, and to ensure that people feel secure to seek relief from the OMP. We will endeavour to build trust among the victims’ relatives and we hope by building a strong institution that we will over time be able to build that trust,’’ he said.

A report compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicates a caseload of 16,000 people reported as arrested, separated families and missing persons during the conflict since the establishment of its permanent presence in 1989. Some 5,100 cases among them are security forces personnel Missing in Action.

However, the number of complaints reached nearly 20,000 as the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons ceased its operations in the recent past.

The OMP said that it will reach out to families of missing persons, various groups, and relevant stakeholders to get their advice, insight, technical support and resources on how it should proceed to make the office as a credible and effective permanent institution. “Given the ICRC’s long history of working in Sri Lanka on disappearances and the missing, and its global experience, the OMP has much to learn from the ICRC. But at the end, it will be the OMP that has to decide as per its mandate and take responsibility on how it is to proceed.”

The OMP main office is to be set up in Colombo by early April. The appointment of its secretary and regional branches will follow.

“The OMP is aware of families of the disappeared having made complaints to numerous state agencies and commissions, and little action has been taken to find their loved ones. So first, it is important to look at all the existing material before asking families to fill out yet another complaint form. We will need some time to fully plan our office and processes.

As per the law, the setting up of regional offices is critical. Physical access has been a primary demand of the victims. But the machinery to process information and provide support for victims needs to be in place.” chair of OMP, Mr Pieris said.

Executive Director of the Association of War Affected Women Visaka Dharmadasa, whose son, a soldier who went missing in action during the war told the Sunday Times that she is hopeful that the OMP will provide answers to families of missing persons of all communities which have been longing for answers for decades.

Red Cross says its insights useful

The newly-appointed Office of Missing Persons is seeking to have a constructive engagement with any groups or agencies that have expresses interest in providing advice, technical support and resources to make it an independent permanent institution that will address the decades-long trauma of the conflict that affected communities in the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has expressed its willingness to assist the office with its experience, insight and technical support.

“Over the coming weeks we are planning to meet with various groups and key stakeholders, including families of the disappeared to seek their advice. There are also a number of institutions similar to ours that can provide us useful insight, techniques and methodologies. Given the ICRC’s long history of working in Sri Lanka on disappearances and the missing, and its global experience, the OMP has much to learn from the ICRC,” Chair of OMP Saliya Pieris told the Sunday Times while asserting that at the end, it will be the OMP that has to decide based on its mandate and take responsibility on how it should proceed.

While welcoming the announcement of the names of OMP commissioners, the ICRC Country office in Sri Lanka reiterated its readiness to extend technical support in several thematic areas.

“This is based on the extensive humanitarian experience it has gained on national mechanisms to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, that have been established elsewhere in the world. Given the Act’s provisions for a humanitarian mandate, the ICRC has offered to provide the authorities expert and technical advice to support the implementation process, provided that the best interests of the families and this humanitarian mandate are safeguarded by the OMP,” a spokesperson at ICRC Sri Lanka said.

Following the government’s commitment to set-up an Office of Missing Persons with a humanitarian mandate in Sri Lanka, the ICRC started to re-contact families registered with it to inform them of the possibility of sharing their basic information with the OMP.

Based on an island-wide assessment of the needs of families of missing persons done by the ICRC in Sri Lanka between October 2014 and November 2015, families of missing persons expressed the need to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones and to get support to address their daily struggles.