By Jehan Perera
Like most politicians from the ethnic majority community, he did not taken any particularly strong interest in the affairs of the ethnic minorities in the past. However, with regard to the presidential election, the opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena will assuredly need the support of the ethnic minorities if he is to compete with any chance of winning the election.
There is a need on the part of the opposition candidate to visit the North and East and carry out his campaign there. This may not be possible at the present time, because the opposition alliance has yet to formulate its position on the ethnic minorities. The problem for the opposition is that they feel vulnerable to being attacked as pro-minority and anti-national if they seek to address the issues of the ethnic minorities.
By having waged a no-holds barred war and eliminated the LTTE, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa can act as if it has a monopoly on patriotism. Any indication by the opposition that they will accommodate the concerns of the ethnic minority parties is liable to be used against them by the government. The apprehension of the opposition is that if they address issues that are central to the Tamil policy, such as the devolution of power or the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, or the militarisation of the North and East, they would risk losing a sizeable chunk of their Sinhalese vote base.
On the other hand, if they do not address those issues that are of importance to the ethnic minorities, the opposition runs the risk of discouraging them from voting at all. The challenge for the opposition is to address the issues that are of importance to the ethnic minorities, without alienating the ethnic majority voters.
Last week a newspaper carried a story that was both tragic and appalling, and which anyone who is a citizen would wish to never happen to anyone ever again. According to the story, “A resident from Chunnakam in Jaffna returned home on Friday after more than 25 years in a detention camp, residents said. S. Vairavanathan was arrested at Armour Street in Colombo soon after a bomb blast in 1990. He was 28 then. Since then, he had been detained at a detention camp in Hambantota for 25 years without any charges being filed against him.
“Both his parents died not knowing where their son was after they had searched for him for a long period without success. Recently, the Hambantota Magistrate Court sent a letter to his family to take charge of him. But the Sunday Times learns that some of his relatives were reluctant to welcome Mr. Vairawanathan as they had allegedly sold properties belonging to the Vairavanathans using forged documents. However, other relatives turned up at the Hambantota courts on Thursday to take Mr. Vairawanathan home.” It is easy to see how the fate of this victim can cause fear in the general population, that such a fate can befall them also. It indicates that there are places of detention in which people can disappear. They may not necessarily be dead. But there will be no track of them. Such incarceration in secret places, where even his parents who searched high and low for their son, and died not knowing where he was, needs to be outlawed. Such a pledge can be a part of an election manifesto that has a measure of appeal to the Tamil minority in particular, who was at the receiving end of these acts of state oppression that spanned the period of four governments of Sri Lanka.
The plight of the victim in this case would touch the heart of any humane person, which most Sri Lankans are. They would not wish this fate to befall anyone. They would wish the state to compensate such a victim, as would be in the case in many other countries in cases of wrongful incarceration. They would also understand why the relatives of the disappeared in the North do not give up looking for their loved ones, and continue to believe that they are hidden somewhere in some secret place.
The government has appointed a commission of inquiry into missing persons. It has also appointed six international advisers of high caliber to advice the commission, the most recent being from Japan. However, there is also the concern about the status of investigations. Recently the Centre for Policy Alternatives released a report that assessed the work of this commission.
It noted that although the Commission has received to 20,000 complaints to date, there is still no indication of any investigations presently underway. According to the CPA report, “Investigations at a bare minimum need to inquire into the status of GoSL detention centres, wartime hospital records, IDP camp registrations and rehabilitation centre registrations. However the expectation of the families is to probe much deeper.
Families expect the Commission to investigate individual cases and inquire further into last seen whereabouts in order to ascertain what became of the victims, and provide them with answers on their whereabouts if still alive. The Commission therefore must set out its plans for investigations as a matter of priority. It is worrying that almost a year after the first round of hearings, the Commission has still not identified an independent investigations team or started genuine inquiries into complaints.”
From the perspective of the parties that are contesting the presidential election, issues such as the devolution of power, merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces and demilitarisation of the North and East, which are important to the Tamil people, could be threatening to other sections of the population, and whose political support is essential to the survival of any government. On the other hand, the manifestos of the contesting political parties could address the issue of missing persons, finding them and compensating them, without arousing the insecurities of any section of the population.
It can also carry a solemn pledge that secret places of detention, or keeping people hidden even in known places of detention, is forbidden by law, as it ought to be by any test of good governance of one’s own people.