A State that cares | Daily News


A State that cares

One major consequence of the multitude of conflicts that we have witnessed in this country is the phenomenon of missing persons. In other words, their whereabouts are unknown – families have no way of knowing whether their relative is living or dead. There is no closure for them, as there is no body to do final rites or a living person to love again. They are in a state of limbo, unable to let go of their loved ones.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and several other bodies had advised the Government to initiate a mechanism to deal with the grievances of relatives with regard to missing persons. However, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government did not heed this suggestion, along with many other suggestions on human rights and ethnic harmony.

It was left to the preset Government to set up this mechanism, which is now officially called the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). The OMP went around the country, listening to the voices of those who had experienced the agony of the disappearance of their children and relatives and gathering evidence of such instances. Significantly, it went to the Sinhalese-dominated areas too to document the tales of woe of Sinhalese families who had lost soldier sons in the war.

This was to counter the notion, perpetrated mainly by extremist ethno-religious organisation and similarly inclined political entities that the OMP caters exclusively to members of the Tamil community who had not seen their loved ones after the war. They even insinuate, in so many words, that the missing persons have to be presumed as LTTE members and no action should be taken. Some of the critics have even taken up the line that the OMP is simply a mechanism for hunting down war heroes who hoped to eliminate terrorism. But the fact is that everyone who had disappeared, combatant or civilian, is a Sri Lankan and the State has an obligation to find out what happened to them.

Tired of this negative publicity, the OMP has taken the rather pragmatic step of taking out advertisements on the electronic media about the mandate and role of the OMP. In one of the adverts, the family laments about their missing soldier son. Yes, the OMP has a mandate to find out about the disappearance of people from both sides of the divide. The families have every right to know what happened.

But the OMP cannot be a “cosmetic” solution that stops at just gathering evidence. It has to actively work on behalf of the families who had suffered this most horrendous of fates. It is in this context that the Cabinet on Tuesday approved the provision of an interim allowance of Rs. 6,000 monthly to family members of missing persons.

Facilitating an interim allowance for the families of the missing persons was one of the key recommendations made by the OMP in its first interim report released in September last year. The interim allowance will be paid on the 10th of each month from this October to relatives who have obtained a “Certificate of Absence” for their kin who have gone missing in the course of the war. The allowance will be made as a direct deposit to the beneficiary’s account. The Registrar General’s Department has been instructed to issue Certificates of Absence after processing the applications it has received by various aggrieved parties.

The Cabinet Paper in this regard had been presented jointly by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister Mano Ganesan, both of whom are known opponents of communalism and extremism.

This is a step in the right direction that will bring some relief to the affected families. No amount of money can compensate for the loss or disappearance of a loved one or heal the pain. But given that some of the missing are the sole breadwinners of families, this allowance will alleviate their day-to-day struggles to some extent.

The Government should also redouble its efforts to investigate some of the high-profile disappearance cases such as that of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and other “White Van” abductions. All disappearances should certainly be treated alike, but the high-profile cases are facing extra international scrutiny. Any perception that the investigations are moving slowly will impact on the country’s standing in the wider international community.

This is to be expected, since enforced disappearances and people Missing in Action in conflicts have now become global issues. In line with this thinking, the OMP is doing some good work. The first step of paying compensation is timely. But it should speed up the process to expedite justice for the victims and their families.

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