On 11 August 2016,
The Office on the Missing Persons’ Bill, which we will be debating today in this House, I believe heralds a new beginning, a new era of peace and reconciliation for our long suffering country.
68 years after Independence, two youth insurrections, and a 26 year old war, Sri Lanka is now ready to commence the healing process of our wounded and fractured nation, coming to terms with the tragedies of our past, so that we could harness the potential of our great nation and its people to pave the way for the future our country truly deserves.
As Lee Kuan Yew, in his memoirs – “From Third World to First” wrote –
Ceylon was Britain’s model Commonwealth country. It had been carefully prepared for independence. After the War, it was a good middle-sized country with fewer than 10 million people. It had a relatively good standard of education, with two universities of high quality, a civil service largely of locals, and experience in representative government starting with city council elections in the 1930s.
When Ceylon gained independence in 1948, it was the classic model of gradual evolution to independence.
Alas, it did not work out. During my visits over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste.
It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendib has given the English language the word ‘Serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.
Today, however – 7 years after the end of the brutal war and the defeat and the demise of LTTE terror, Sri Lanka is now ready to win the peace and heal the scars of conflict, sorrow and pain. This Bill is the first step in healing our own nation and its people so that we could face the challenges of the future as a united nation; unity in diversity!
This is a very special day for all of us in this House, irrespective of the political parties, the colours, symbols and ideologies that we represent.
Today is a day that seeks to unite us as human beings. A day for each of us in this House to pause for a moment, reach deep within our hearts, speak to our conscience and demonstrate through action, that we are guided by peace, compassion, empathy and brotherhood, noble principles which the four main religions in our country – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – teach us.
As you know, there is no corner of this blessed and beloved country of ours, that has not been drenched by the tears of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children who have wept and continue to weep, not knowing where their loved ones are, or what happened to them. They only know that they are missing. They don’t know whether they are dead or alive.
Tears and pain have no ethnicity, no religion, no race, no caste:
-the tears of a mother or father in the South who cries not knowing what happened to their soldier son;
-the tears of a wife who cries not knowing what happened to her husband in the Police;
-the tears of a mother whose son was forcibly recruited to fight for the LTTE;
-the pain of a mother whose child went missing during the Southern insurrection;
-the anguish of a child who still waits for his or her father to return after the end of the conflict;
-tears of parents and loved ones waiting for those who were held as prisoners by the LTTE who have still not returned.
All their tears are the same. The grief they feel, their anguish, their pain is personal, but the same. Their suffering cannot be explained in words. Every day, there are people in this country who go to sleep at night, praying that their loved ones will return. There are mothers who are paralyzed with grief; they are lost in time; unable to continue with their day-to-day lives, worrying whether their sons, wherever they may be, have enough food to eat, or whether they are being treated alright; wondering how much they may have grown, or how much they may have changed since they last saw them. These people are torn between hope and despair, and they are unable to live meaningful lives.
When one sees a dead body, no matter how unbearable the pain of loss may be, there is closure, because there is knowledge that one’s loved one is no more.
But how can one find closure, and how can one be expected to find closure when there is no knowledge of what has happened to someone?
There is probably no district, and certainly no province in this country which has been untouched by the phenomena of someone going missing – either in the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s, or later.
In my electorate in Matara, there are mothers who still go from astrologer to astrologer trying to find out what happened to their children who went missing in the 80s and 90s, and some even as far back as the 70s. They still live in hope.
There are mothers and sisters of soldiers who still shed tears urging us to at least find a bone fragment of their sons and brothers who went missing during the years of conflict, if they are to come to terms with what they have been told – that these soldiers are no more. Without that, they say they cannot come to terms that their loved ones are no more. They have only heard, they say, that a camp was overrun but received no further details. They have received no evidence that their loved ones are dead. So they wait and they wait forever, without carrying out the last rites; without giving alms to confer merit on the departed. Is this what the families of our soldiers deserve?
As a responsible State, can we continue to ignore their tears and their pleas? Can we just say to them that we don’t know what happened to their loved ones, and ask them to accept that they are dead? Can we expect them to take whatever few thousand rupees are given to them as compensation and lead normal lives? Can we, as a responsible State, just tell them that all the people who are missing – and this includes soldiers, policemen, and other security forces personnel – have all probably gone overseas and are now leading new lives under new identities, and so, they are best forgotten? Can we, as a responsible State, say that no country in Asia or no country in NATO has established an Office to ascertain the fate of those who have gone missing and that therefore, we should also not make any attempt to find out what happened to the Missing in our country, to provide answers to families or loved ones?
These are our citizens: those who went Missing are our citizens; those who grieve are also our citizens. Don’t we, as a responsible State, have a duty to try to alleviate their agony? Try to at least help them find an answer; or try to help them find closure? If this is not the compassion that Gautama Buddha has taught us, then, what is? It certainly cannot be the symbolic chanting of gathas, or offering of flowers, or building new statues and temples. We have to be able to reach out to our fellow citizens who are suffering; who have been suffering for years and years, and alleviate their pain. If the loved ones they seek are no more, we have to be able to help them find the truth. We have to help them to come to terms with the truth. We must assist them in their process of healing. We must help them to continue with their lives in a meaningful way, and be productive citizens of our country. How can we say that we are guardians of the noble teachings of the Buddha if we don’t practice his Teachings? Can we, as the compassionate nation we claim to be, shut out the grief of a large number of our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, and our children, and be deaf and blind to their pain, their wailing, their silent agony, their psychological trauma and their tears?
For long years, this nation has suffered the phenomena of our citizens going missing from all parts of our country. Today, we have before us a Bill to establish a Permanent Office on Missing Persons.
This is an opportunity for all of us as elected representatives, to show that we care about our citizens’ grief and that we uphold their basic human right to know what happened to their loved ones. This is a humanitarian exercise. This is an opportunity for our nation to unite in our empathy towards our own citizens. An opportunity for us, as a nation, to set an example to the whole world that we care about our citizens; and that we are a nation that is capable of compassion, even after two insurrections in the South and a prolonged conflict in the North. It is also an opportunity for us to make a pledge to our own citizens and future generations that, as a responsible State, we will take measures at all times to ensure that no citizen of our country, whether Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim, will have to go missing ever again. It is also an opportunity for us as Parliamentarians to lead by example so that our citizens will also take the responsibility to play their part in the process of healing and reconciliation so that at least the future generations in this country will be spared from the pain and anguish of their loved ones going missing.
As you are aware, Hon. Speaker, the LLRC as well as previous Commissions have all recommended that a special mechanism must be established to address the issues pertaining to Missing Persons and deter future occurrences.
For some, this emotive and heart-wrenching issue is a mere numbers game. They argue and argue until they turn blue, and keep writing newspaper report after report stating that the number claimed by some agency or individual is wrong and the number indicated by some government entity is the correct one. They try to justify the numbers by saying such and such a number are overseas and accuse countries for not sharing information. This is not the way to approach this issue. It is not a matter of numbers. It is a matter of individuals. It is a matter of human beings. It is a matter concerning our citizens, and it is a matter of creating mechanisms that are credible which enable people to share information, even entities in countries in which some who are reported as missing may be leading new lives under new identities. I am sure there is duplication and errors in the various records maintained by various different entities. With the setting up of this Office, by an Act of Parliament, we will finally have a credible mechanism that will be in a position to centralize data at national level, integrating all information with regard to missing persons currently being maintained by different agencies, as recommended by the LLRC, way back in 2011.
• Questions are raised as to why we propose to establish an Office on Missing Persons by an Act of Parliament:
-We do so because in the past, Commissions that have looked into Missing Persons have been ad hoc arrangements.
-They were constrained by time durations. They were dependent on extensions. Their mandates were restricted by geography and time-frames. They faced funding constraints which made it difficult for them to get the best technical and forensic expertise to identify remains and find the kinds of answers that will help the families find closure, or psychological and psychosocial support required. They didn’t have the necessary means to protect victims or witnesses. They didn’t have the necessary legal mandate or personality to seek assistance to trace the whereabouts of people from other institutions and from other countries.
This Office will be different. It will not be constrained by time. It will be open-ended with no start or end date or restrictions based on geographic areas. Anyone from the South or the North or the East or West or the Centre of the country can take a complaint to this Office, and the Office will try to find answers. They will have the freedom to provide individual answers to the families who seek answers. Unlike previous Commissions, this Office will be answerable to this House and to the people of our country. This Office should be in a position to consolidate the lists existing elsewhere, including the data of past Commissions, find people who may even be overseas, and provide accurate figures of how many may be actually missing. If a person who is alleged to be missing is found to be alive, then that person will most certainly be taken off the list of persons who are missing. This is clearly stated in Section 13. The fact that a person has been found will be disclosed. It is only the location of the person found alive that may be withheld from the public, but that too, in limited circumstances. But the provisions of the Bill do not prevent a Court from requiring the Office to disclose the location of such a person.
• The main functions of this Office outlined in Clause 10 of the Bill, will be:
(i) searching and tracing of missing persons
(ii) clarifying the circumstances in which such persons went missing and their fate making recommendations to relevant authorities in order to reduce incident of missing and disappeared persons
(iii) making recommendations to relevant authorities in order to reduce incident of missing and disappeared persons
(iv) identifying proper avenues of redress
I have seen some people who are slaves to causing hatred and division and driving fear into people’s minds as a tactic to gain votes, stating that the legislation of this Office has not been drafted by Sri Lankans but by foreigners. They say that this Office has been imposed on us.
This is an insult to the intelligence and competence of our officials. It is equally an insult to the long suffering people all over this country who bear the pain of their loved ones having gone missing. It is indeed the best legal minds that we have in this country and dedicated, competent and compassionate individuals of this country who feel for the pain of their fellow citizens, and who yearn to find solutions to their problems, who studied the positives and negatives of the previous Commissions that we have had, that came up with this piece of legislation which is best suited to find solutions and forms of relief for the citizens of this country. Wide consultations were also held with relevant individuals and groups.
This has been designed for our local needs, using local expertise.
Nothing will ever be imposed on us by any foreign entity, if we find solutions to our own problems. It is when we fail to find solutions to our own problems, and when we fail to provide redress, that the problems of our citizens become the problems of others, and others are then compelled to seek to try to force us to find solutions.
But yes, there will be many who will be willing to help us, if we are honest about what we set out to achieve.
What we are trying to deal with today is a very human problem. One of basic humanity and compassion. Helping someone to find the whereabouts of their loved ones. But some see conspiracies behind the noblest of human deeds, which indeed is sad.
There are other countries in this world that have set up institutions of this nature to trace the whereabouts of their missing. Such countries include – South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Peru, Ghana, Guatemala, Uganda and Timor L’este (East Timor).
This Office will be a responsible institution, reporting to this House. The allegations levelled that it will accept reams and reams of false evidence manufactured overseas, against our soldiers, have absolutely no basis. This, Hon. Speaker, will be an Office that will be accountable and answerable to this House and it will conduct itself with the utmost care in evaluating the information and evidence it receives. There is absolutely no space for false evidence being accepted or admitted as claimed by certain fear-mongers.
Information in the possession of this Office will NOT, under any circumstances, be sent overseas or shared with any foreign organisation or entity. This Organisation is only answerable and accountable to Sri Lankan processes – this House, the legal entities of this country and the public of this country.
Where appropriate, the Office will determine the need for the issuance of a Certificate of Absence, or a Certificate of Death if it is determined that a person who had been reported as Missing is in fact dead.
The establishment of the Office on Missing Persons will help alleviate the pain and agony that the people of our country have suffered for long years.
Approving this Bill is an act of Compassion towards those who are helpless, vulnerable and traumatized.
Passage of this legislation will demonstrate to our citizens, our conviction to assist them, and our commitment to care for them.
It will also stand as an affirmation of our determination to ensure that no citizen of our country, will ever go Missing again, and that our mothers, our fathers, brothers, sisters and children will not have to bear the trauma of their loved ones disappearing, or being reported as Missing in Action in the future.