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Sri Lankans clamor for details on missing loved ones

The country has a long history of enforced disappearances both during the communist rebellion and 26-year civil war

Religious leaders and family members seek justice for missing persons during a street protest in western Seeduwa on Oct. 27.

Religious leaders and family members seek justice for missing persons during a street protest in western Seeduwa on Oct. 27. (Photo: Supplied)

Published: October 31, 2023 05:23 AM GMT

Updated: October 31, 2023 07:12 AM GMT

Elderly mothers, fathers and wives laid red flowers at a monument on Oct. 27 without knowing what exactly happened to their beloved ones in Sri Lanka with a long history of enforced disappearances.

Hundreds of missing family members wore lockets with photographs of their loved ones while seeking justice at a street protest in Raddoluwa junction in western Seeduwa, organized by the Families of the Disappeared (FoD).

Religious leaders, civil society groups, and embassy representatives attended the event under the theme 'Bring them Home’.

A Catholic priest who attended the protest meeting said that the minority Tamil community in the north and the east were hit hard by the 26-year-old civil war as many of them were arrested or surrendered for their alleged links with the guerrillas. 

Due to the tardy progress in tracing the missing persons, they have lost faith in the government, which is known for repeated deceptions, he said.

"The Tamil community demands international intervention to solve the problem of missing persons," said the priest, who did not want to be named.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar submitted a report to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010, which said 146,679 people went missing during the last stages of the civil war.

The LLRC was constituted to probe civil war atrocities and the commission is accused of giving a clean chit to government forces and the Tamil rebels.

"What happened to the lives of those who surrendered to the army at the end of the war?" the priest asked.

"The government in power must answer these questions."

The Indian Ocean nation has a long history of enforced disappearances both during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection, spearheaded by communists in 1987, and the civil war, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 

Thousands were killed and disappeared when the civil war ended with the assassination of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran  on May 18, 2009, and thousands of majority Sinhalese disappeared between 1989 and 1990 over alleged links to leftist groups.

According to the Church, at least 10 priests were killed and four went missing during the civil war.

Sri Lanka is home to one of the largest recorded numbers of missing persons in the world. Their number is pegged at 100,000 from all ethnic groups and religious communities, according to data by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Brito Fernando, a well-known human rights activist and president of the FoD, said, "Expedite the investigations to reveal the truth and release a list of those who surrendered to the army and thereafter disappeared."

He wanted a comprehensive compensation package for victims and their families.

Professor Arjuna Parakrama from the University of Peradeniya said that since the current government follows neo-liberal policies, it is not in a position to find a solution to the issue of missing persons.

A bankrupt Sri Lanka availed a US$3 billion loan in March this year from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stave off its spiraling economic crisis that began after the country of 22 million people defaulted on its debt in April 2022.

"A government that treats all Sri Lankans as equals should be established in the country," Parakrama told the gathering.

A representative from the South African High Commission said disappearances are now a common situation all over the world.

From 1960 to 1994, political violence resulted in the forced disappearance of around 2,000 people in South Africa.

"In order to respond to these situations, it is extremely necessary to have a consensus among nations," she said.

The government appointed many commissions to investigate but none of them could fulfill their task, said Luxmy Nilendra, who attended the event with her family members with red flowers in their hands.

Many parents of the disappeared have died after seeking justice for more than 20 years.

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