The meeting, held at the auditorium of the Karaichchikudiyiruppu Pillaiyar temple in Mullaithivu on 1 July, was organised by the families of the disappeared. The TNA panel at the meeting were MPs A. Sivasakthy Ananthan, Shanthi Sriskantharajah, Charles Nirmalanathan, Provincial Councillors Anthony Jeganthan, Thurairasa Ravikaran, Kandaiah Sivanesan, and former MP Suresh Premachandran.
“The objective of this meeting is to find out what you as our representatives have done in these seven years to locate our disappeared loved ones and what you hope to do in the future towards this end,” said Rathinan Subathra in her opening remarks.
Subathra’s husband Rasaiya Rathinan disappeared after he surrendered to the Sri Lanka Army in her presence at Omanthai, Vavuniya District, on 17 May 2009.
The discussion came amidst tensions over a draft bill prepared by the Government to establish the OMP, which critics say was done without adequate consultations with families of the disappeared.
On 27 May when Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers approved setting up an OMP, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams observed, “The Sri Lankan government is creating important structures to address the scourge of disappearances in the country. But it should only do this after receiving input from the families most affected.”
On 1 July the TNA released a statement saying they were consulted by the Sri Lanka government on the bill to set up the OMP. However the families of the disappeared were unware of the TNA’s submission to the Government.
The tensions were in full display at the meeting when one of the participants said that she had learnt from the newspapers that the TNA had made recommendations on the formation of the OMP. “I saw in a newspaper that as representatives of the Tamils you had approved setting up the Office. How can this be without consulting the victims?” demanded a participant.
In reply Ms Sriskantharaja said “We are not aware of this. Mr. Sumanthiran is in my party. If you set up a meeting I undertake to bring Mr. Sumanthiran there, where you can ask him. In front of all of you I am willing to take on that responsibility.”
Through their questions participants expressed their dissatisfaction about the proposed OMP in its present form. Since the majority of the families of the disappeared lived in the Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi districts the participants wanted the OMP to be physically located there. They also said that the members of the OMP should include Tamil-speaking lawyers, academics and intellectuals from areas most affected by disappearances. Some asked that the process of finding their loved ones be concluded in six months.
'NO' to death certificates or compensation
There were many participants who stressed that the OMP should either function under international monitors or have internationals as decision-makers. “We will convey the overwhelming demand for international participation for this process when we discuss these issues with the Government,” promised Mr. Premachandran.
The participants reiterated that they were not willing to accept death certificates or certificates of absence to obtain compensation for their disappeared loved ones. This would be tantamount to admitting their loved ones were dead, which they were not willing to do. However, the disappearance often meant losing breadwinners, which had made families destitute. Therefore the Government should recognise the economic hardship they were facing and support schemes for their livelihoods, they stated.
Directing a question to the panel a participant said, “My child was taken away in a bus and there has been no contact for seven years despite his photograph appearing in a newspaper and other evidence. There are also witnesses. There is nobody willing to bring relief to our suffering. Will you all help me?”
Mr. Nirmlanathan told the participant to meet him with documents and other material relevant to the case.
“Many witnesses saw three persons arrested by the army near the Meesalai junction [in the Jaffna District]. One of them was my son. But what happened to them? There is no information. Is disappearing people they arrest the law of the Sri Lanka government? I have to find out the truth,” another participant said.
“Three of my children are disappeared. I would like you to accompany me to military camps to search for them. Can you do that?” inquired a participant from the panel.
In reply Mr. Nirmalanathan said that arrested persons are seldom detained in official military camps. “We have no access to secret camps. If we do, we will accompany you,” he said.
Expanding on detainees held in secret locations Mr. Premachandran said, “At Gota’s Camp in Trincomalee 700 youngsters and 30 families were detained secretly. United Nations authorities visited that site and reported that it had been a torture chamber. But the detainees are now missing. This was brought up in parliament, but the Government took no steps trace them.”
Messrs Ananthan and Ravikaran complained that the TNA was helpless due to the indifference of the Government to the plight of the families of the disappeared. “We demand to know what befell those who surrendered to the military when fighting ended. But the Government refuses to respond. The Government treats us like slaves,” said Mr. Ravikaran.
Anthony Jeganathan stressed his personal link to war’s horrors. He said he had lost his son in the final battles of the conflict. Further, seven youngsters had come to him at the Omanthai military checkpoint in the Vavuniya District inquiring if it is was wise surrendering to the army. He had advised them to do so.
“Those youngsters who surrendered before my eyes have not come home. I am a witness and I am willing to give evidence, but the Government is unwilling to tell the truth about the disappeared,” Mr. Jegnathan said.
As the meeting wound up a member of the panel suggested that the people should lead the struggle for truth, accountability and justice. “You as the families affected by disappearances should continue voice your demands. We will give you support,” said Mr. Ravikaran.
“We will have a meeting about your problems in the NPC and take up the matter in parliament,” assured Mr. Premachandra.
(By Athula Vithanage – jdslanka.org)