By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On September 5, 2018, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) handed its interim report to President Maithripala Sirisena at the Parliament. OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris handed over the report to the President recommending that the Government provide urgent and immediate relief to the families of the involuntarily disappeared, as their current socio-economic situation was dire; the implementation of a financial aid programme to provide a monthly allowance of SLR 6000 to the surviving spouse, children and parents of these missing persons, who have no permanent income; introduction of a scholarship scheme under the Ministry of Education for the children of missing persons in the form of a monthly allowance of SLR 2000 to cover essential education expenses required for the completion of their primary and secondary education; and the introduction of an employment quota of one percent within the state sector for family members of the missing.
The OMP was operationalized on March 13, 2018, to determine the status of all persons who went ‘missing’ during the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to the Paranagama Commission Report, around 21,000 people went missing during the civil war. Accepting the fact that enforced disappearances had occurred in the country, on August 30, 2018, OMP Chairman Pieris, at an event to mark the International Day of the Enforced Disappearances at the J. R. Jayawardene Centre in Colombo, observed
If we speak of the numbers of missing in Sri Lanka, it is one of the highest not only in Asia but also in the world. We have to accept that people had been forcibly disappeared for at least four decades. Accepting this is the only way to achieve reconciliation.
Significantly, to expand national unity and reconciliation projects island-wide, and to create a discourse on reconciliation at the grass roots level, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with 22 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) on July 3, 2018. The ONUR Director General M.S Jayasinghe and respective officials of CSOs participated in the signing. The main objective of the MoU was to expand the “Heal the Past, Build the Future” project in 17 selected Districts. The chosen Districts are Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura, Ampara, Mannar, Galle, Kalutara, Kilinochchi, Kurunegala, Matara, Monaragala, Nuwara, Eliya, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya.
Meanwhile, the Office for Reparations Bill ratified by the Cabinet on June 13, 2018, for the payment of reparations to war-affected and missing persons, was submitted to Parliament on July 17, 2018. However, on August 7, 2018, the Supreme Court shot down two clauses of the Bill on the grounds that they vested judicial powers in the Office for Reparations. According to the Court, Sections 27 (a) and 27 (A) (iii) of the Bill were inconsistent with Sections 4 (D) and Section 3 of the Constitution and therefore the Court stated that the Bill has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the total number of members in the Parliament, in order to bring about a Constitutional amendment. The SC also recommended that the Bill should be approved by the people through a referendum and that the inconsistency could be removed if amendments were made in line with the directions it had given.
On the other hand, underlining the importance of the Office for Reparations, the OMP Interim Report noted
The proposed Office for Reparations will play a critical role in providing redress to victims of the missing and the disappeared as well as others affected by the conflict. An independent Office for Reparations with a robust mandate and strong implementation powers is urgently required. The OMP urges all Members of Parliament to strengthen the Office for Reparations Bill and ensure its prompt enactment and operationalisation.
On July 30, 2018, in an effort to accelerate development projects launched in the war-affected North and East, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a Presidential Task Force and convened its first meeting at his Office. The Task Force, chaired by the President, consists of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, 15 Cabinet Ministers, Governors, the Chief Ministers of the two provinces, together with the Tri Forces Commanders. At the meeting, the President emphasized that development programs should be implemented in a systematic and efficient manner to provide the people in the region with immediate benefits. Further, on August 27, 2018, President Sirisena convening the Presidential Task Force for the second time at the Presidential Secretariat, assured equal development in Northern and Eastern Provinces. During the meeting, the President instructed the officials to take measures to streamline and accelerate the infrastructure development programs of the North and the East and the programs implemented to uplift the livelihood of the people.
Separately, on July 11, 2018, the Government launched a long-term development plan for the Eastern port city of Trincomalee and surrounding cities in the island’s Eastern Province. The long-term plan to develop the port city under the theme “Eastern gateway to Sri Lanka by 2050″ was presented to the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees. Under this project, Trincomalee will be developed as the main export center for the Bay of Bengal region, with eco-friendly industrial zones, agricultural zones and tourism. Highways, transport, education, health and other facilities are planned to be built and it is envisaged to generate more than a million new jobs.
Meanwhile, encouraging entrepreneurs in North with tax concessions to help lift the local economy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe noted, at an event held at Jaffna Municipal Grounds in Jaffna District of Northern Province on July 22, 2018, “We want local entrepreneurs to invest as well as bringing the enterprises to the region from outside. That money should be invested in Jaffna. We will give money if you start from inside the region.” Further, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, participating as the Chief Guest at the opening ceremony of several new buildings constructed at the Kilinochchi Campus of Jaffna University on August 4, 2018, declared, “Steps are being taken to provide a better life for the youth through a massive development program from Point Pedro in the North to Hambantota in the South. The accelerated development program has already been commenced from the Northern Province with the construction of an airport in Kilinochchi and the development of Kankasanthurai harbor.”
In keeping with the Government’s policy to release more security forces-held lands to civilians, the Army released another 4.4 acres in the Valikamam North Divisional Secretariat area in Jaffna District on September 6, 2018, during a ceremony at Myliddy Town. The Army released a land patch of 2.75 acres, belonging to the Kalaimagal Vidyalayam, Myliddy North; a stretch of 1.19 acres, belonging to several families in Sandilipay area; another block of 0.5 acres, owned by Kurumbachetti Co-operative Shop; and the Community Hall to the Zonal Education Director and the District Secretary for Jaffna, N. Vethanayahan, enabling both of them to go ahead with onward arrangements for issue of their legitimate deeds, certificates, etc through the District Secretariat. As of December 2017, the Army had released a total of 55,643.92 acres of land in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya Districts in the Northern Province. The Army commenced the gradual release of private property used by the armed forces after the conclusion of the Eelam War on May 17, 2009.
On September 7, 2018, a Select Committee was appointed to study and recommend ways and means of ensuring ethnic and religious harmony in Sri Lanka. The Committee, headed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, includes the Deputy Speaker Ananda Wijesiri, and Opposition Leader R. Sampathan, as well as sitting Members of Parliament Rauff Hakeem, D. M. Swaminathan, Susil Premajayantha, Dinesh Gunawardene, C. B. Ratnayake, Vijitha Herath, Douglas Devananda, Selvam Adekaranathan, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Mano Ganesan, Wijedasa Rajapakshe, Ali Zahir Mawlana, John Amaratunga, Thalatha Athukorala and Ranjith Madduma Bandara. The Committee will also look at ways of preventing the propagation of defamatory views that undermine national harmony or the engagement in such activities, as well as the necessity of taking legal action against individuals who engage in such activities. It will also examine the suitability of including hate speech as a crime in the Penal Code; categorizing the schools system on non-racial or non-religious bases; establishing a parliamentary committee empowered to entertain complaints about the issues faced by minority ethnic groups in the North and the East; formulating relevant legal provisions required for general implementation of the law when establishing places of worship and erecting statues; and the possibility of banning news which disturb national amity.
Expressing satisfaction on the progress of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process and the measures taken by the Government, representatives of several donor agencies, during a meeting with President Maithripala at the President’s Residence on September 5, 2018, expressed their readiness to extend their fullest support to Sri Lanka’s efforts to achieve goals of development and reconciliation. The donor agencies include the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). Earlier, Filippo Grandi, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while meeting with Ambassador A.L.A. Azeez, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations (UN) at the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, on August 15, 2018, commended Sri Lanka for its significant progress in resettlement of returning refugees and Internally Displaced Persons and invited Sri Lanka to play a more proactive role in the organization. Meanwhile, newly-appointed UN Permanent Representative for Sri Lanka, Hanna Singer, while calling on President Sirisena at his official residence in Colombo on September 6, 2018, assured the President that, even as ongoing programmes continued, she would explore the possibility of widening assistance to Sri Lanka.
The National Unity Government, formed on August 20, 2015, has made remarkable efforts to press forward with the reconciliation process. The OMP Interim Report, to help the families of missing is another significant step in this direction. Challenges remain, of course, as the Government is yet to consider the recommendations listed in the comprehensive report and a special Cabinet sub-committee would be needed for this purpose.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management