By Jehan Perera-June 27, 2017, 12:00 pm
The unanimous passage through Parliament of the amendment to the law that establishes the Office of Missing Persons has revived the hope that the government will give priority to inter-ethnic reconciliation. The formation of the Government of National Unity has provided an unique opportunity to obtain a bipartisan political consensus that encompasses the two main political parties in the country, and indeed the larger polity, to deal with the country’s longest standing unresolved problem—its ethnic conflict. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to the international community in Geneva in October 2015. This was the landmark event that turned the international community from being a critic of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation policies to being a supporter.
The political significance of the passage of the OMP amendment bill unanimously in Parliament is two-fold. It shows that when the UNP and SLFP together decide on a course of action, the rest of the polity will tend to fall in line. Although the Joint Oppositions is opposed to virtually everything that the government does in a knee jerk manner, it too went along with the OMP amendment bill. This indicates that it is not opposed in principle to the first of the reconciliation mechanisms. This promises that the passage of the other reconciliation mechanisms in parliament in a consensual manner will not be impossible. On the other hand, the long delay since August last year to get the amendment passed shows that obtaining consensus takes time. But when this consensus is achieved the objectives can be achieved too.
The passage of the OMP bill in August 2016, which was to establish the first of the reconciliation mechanisms was a controversial political event. It took place amidst an uproar in Parliament where the opposition denounced the proposed law as paving the way for information collection that could be used in future war crimes prosecutions of the country’s security forces. Amidst the controversy the bill was passed without the opposition getting the opportunity to vote on it. They were more preoccupied in creating disturbance in Parliament than in the process of voting, knowing that they would be outnumbered by the coalition of UNP and SLFP members from the Government of National Unity. However, the willingness of the Joint Opposition to go along with the OMP amendment bill suggests that they too now accept the need for this reconciliation mechanism.
The government’s failure to operationalise the OMP law and set up the institution has led to a loss of confidence in the government on the part of the Tamil community. The problem however arose when in the government’s hurry to push through the legislation in August 2016, it overlooked an amendment that had been proposed by the opposition JVP. After the passage of the OMP bill in August 2016, the government faced two problems. The first was that the JVP which had been supportive of the idea of an OMP was not willing to accept the fait accompli. They insisted that their amendment which sought to deny the OMP of forging agreements with foreign entities be incorporated into the OMP law. Although the JVP has been very critical of the government with regard to issues of corruption and the economy, it has been a valuable ally to the government in terms of dealing with the past human rights violations.
The JVP has helped to legitimize the concept of an OMP amongst the people by reference to the fate that their own members suffered in the context of the two abortive JVP insurrections of 1971 and 1988-89. As the victims in those two horrific episodes were Sinhalese the JVP has performed the task of helping the general population see the OMP in a non-ethnic light. The major sources of popular skepticism with regard to the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised is the feeling that it is for the Tamil people rather than for all the people in the country.
At the UN Human Rights Council the government promised to set up a truth commission, an Office of Missing Persons, an Office of Reparations and a special judicial accountability mechanism. So far the farthest that the government has gone in terms of the four reconciliation mechanisms it has promised has been to pass legislation on the Office of Missing Persons. The other reconciliation mechanisms are reported to be in a final draft stage, but have not yet surfaced. Discussions at different levels of society reveal that those from the Sinhalese community feel that the reconciliation mechanisms are for the Tamil people and not for them. This is felt especially with regard to the proposed special judicial mechanism to look into war crimes. The sentiment expressed by Sinhalese participants in awareness programmes on the reconciliation mechanisms is that they target the Sri Lankan security forces and do not deal with what the LTTE did.
This brings to focus the second reason why the implementation of the OMP law remained in a state of limbo after the law was passed in August 2016. The OMP needed to be gazetted and to be assigned to a specific government ministry. However, the signature of President Maithripala Sirisena was not forthcoming. As the commander-in-chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces an as the Minister of Defence, the President has a direct relationship with the security forces. Their concerns were expressed in a 14 page document submitted to the President by the Ministry of Defence which was strongly critical of the OMP and its consequences. The president was unwilling to gazette the OMP in these circumstances.
The main concern of the security forces is that the OMP will turn out to be a fact finding body which would collect information that will be utilized for purposes of war crimes trials. The issue of anticipated war crimes trials has taken the center stage in the discussion on the four reconciliation mechanisms. Whether it is the OMP, Office of Reparations, Truth Commission or Special Court they are all seen as collecting information that will be used to humiliate and punish the security forces. The unwillingness of the government to engage in a public education campaign on what the four reconciliation mechanisms entail has led to all sorts of fears about war crimes trials.
The stories of widows of armed forces personnel expressing fears that they will be denied their widows pensions, and of children of soldiers being teased in school that their fathers will be arrested has led to widespread antipathy amongst the Sinhalese people to the reconciliation mechanisms. On the other hand, if Sinhalese people are given an explanation of the reconciliation mechanisms, and are assured it will not target the Sinhalese only as perpetrators, and that the Sinhalese also have been victims, they will be willing to be supportive of the reconciliation processes. This is why it is important that all reconciliation mechanisms should have a longer time frame that spans the different conflicts rather than a shorter time period. A longer time frame will better show that all communities have been victims at different times, of the state and of the rebels.