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New office to investigate wartime disappearances in Sri Lanka

Jaffna Diocese's vicar general questions its 'genuineness based on past experiences'

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

Published: May 27, 2016 11:29 AM GMT

Updated: May 27, 2016 11:49 AM GMT

New office to investigate wartime disappearances in Sri Lanka

A file photo of a relative of an individual who disappeared during the 1987-1989 communist insurgency pays her respect at a shrine north of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. (ucanews.com photo by Quintus Colombage)

Sri Lanka's decision to establish an office to trace the fate of thousands of people who went missing during the island nation's past internal conflicts has been  welcomed with caution.

Father P. Jebaratnam, vicar general of the Jaffna Diocese, which was heavily affected by the country's 1983 – 2009 civil war, told ucanews.com that the establishment of an Office for Missing Persons is necessary but questioned its "genuineness based on past experiences."

"This has to help but I don't think all will benefit out of it only some will," said Father Jebaratnam. 

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"Even government officers don't have an answer [to missing persons] because they don't know where to locate them and they put the blame on the other side," said Father Jebaratnam.

The majority of missing people cases date back to the start of the country's civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, an insurgent group that fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the country's North and East. According to the United Nations the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone.

The priest said some people believe it was possible that their relatives could be alive due to the manner in which they were taken by the military for questioning or even rehabilitation.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in a statement May 25 said the Office of Missing Persons will be tasked to recommend compensation and help families of those affected take legal action against anyone responsible for the disappearances of relatives.

Most of those missing are from Tamil famalies.


1987-1989communist uprising

The militant communist group, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front) also launched two armed uprisings in Sri Lanka, the first in 1971 and another in 1987-1989, which were quickly suppressed by the government. However it is estimated that 60,000 people were killed or disappeared.

The government says their Office for Missing Persons will follow best practices along the lines of initiatives that were carried out in Uganda, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.

Basil Fernando, former head of the Asian Human Rights Commission, welcomed the government decision to put up an office but said he remained cautious.

"Let us wait to see the draft law about this new office and then we can talk about it seriously," said Fernando.

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