Nearly 10 years since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, nothing haunts the state like questions on the country’s missing persons. Enforced disappearances here are not merely part of a war-time reality that fade into the pages of history. For someone looking for her disappeared son, the search is today’s existential question.
The quest is part of their everyday lives — be it for the mothers protesting in the Tamil-majority north for over 500 days on the road; or the relatives of those who surrendered to the military and were never seen after; or the Sinhalese families in the south who lost their children during the state’s crackdown on the youth of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Amnesty International estimates that since the 1980s, there have been at least 60,000 cases of enforced disappearances in the island.
In a recent event to mark the ‘International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance’ organised by Amnesty, a few activists from Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan joined campaigners in Sri Lanka. Their individual stories were different but the plot was largely similar. They are all searching for a relative who had challenged those in power. “In Sri Lanka, so many mothers have aged protesting, a few have even died, but the struggle persists. Such human effort cannot go down the drain. They need answers,” said Amina Masood Janjua from Pakistan. As someone looking or her missing husband for 13 years, she would know the pain of seeing nothing, but time, move ahead.
“What do you do when the state doesn’t give you an answer? You exhaust all domestic and international channels, and nothing still changes. Four years have gone by,” said Mariam Fazna, sister of missing Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan.
South Asia’s gruesome record
According to Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, the region has a particularly gruesome record on enforced disappearances. “It is about time that governments in the region properly investigate these cases... people who have been subjected to enforced disappearance must be immediately released unless they can be charged with a recognisable offence,” he said.
In Sri Lanka’s case, despite multiple delays, the government-established Office on Missing Persons (OMP) is a significant institutional response. Over the past five months, its commissioners have travelled to the north, the east and the south to meet with families. They will soon hand over a report with urgent recommendations relating to interim relief and justice to President Maithripala Sirisena.
On the one hand, the initiative has offered hope to some, even as others remain sceptical. The OMP has so far been honest about its challenges but is making an attempt. And that matters. On the other hand, authorities appear indifferent to reports of ongoing surveillance and intimidation of activists in the north and the east. “In some instances, it [surveillance] is blatantly apparent with uniformed police officers and military officers who take photographs and try to interrogate protesters,” noted the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research in a recent report.
It is in such a context that campaigners persist. Activist Sandya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist, went missing in 2010, has herself faced considerable harassment and intimidation, including from hard-line Buddhist monks. But she is undeterred. “The state will not deliver truth or justice on a platter. We have nothing but the power of our struggle to rely on.”
Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo