Speaking to Tamil Guardian at the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), representatives of the Tamil families of the disappeared reiterated their lack of confidence in domestic mechanisms such as the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) and how the Sri Lankan state has been trying to quash their continuous roadside protests.
The draft resolution which was made public last week, calls for the Office of Missing Persons to be "re-energised" although Tamil families of the disappeared have repeatedly expressed their lack of confidence in the mechanism.
In an interview with the Tamil Guardian, Leeladevi Anandanadarajah, the Secretary of the North-East Relatives of the Missing Persons Association and Thambirasa Selvarani, President of the Amparai District Missing Persons' Association told us that they were saddened that the international community have called on Sri Lanka to “re-energise” the OMP despite explaining its shortcomings on both a domestic and international level.
When asked on their thoughts of the OMP, Leeladevi said:
“We even have a problem with the name ‘Office of Missing Persons’. Our children did not go missing on their own. They were victims of enforced disappearances.”
“Even before the OMP Act was instituted, we did not agree with any of its provisions. To establish the OMP Act, there were consultations that were held but none of the resolutions were incorporated into the Act. When the OMP was established, there was no transparency and none of our expectations were fulfilled.”
Leeladevi also told the Tamil Guardian that in 2019, the families of the disappeared gave evidence and information relating to five enforced disappearance cases to the OMP. The families told them that if the OMP can investigate and solve one case within three months, then they would trust the OMP.
3 years on and the families have only received an acknowledgement to the evidence they submitted.
“There is no further example needed to prove that the OMP is an inactive mechanism,” Leeladevi added.
Tamil families of the disappeared have been protesting across the North-East for over 2,000 days and yet not a single demand has been met by the state.
Early on in their roadside protests, the families had met with former President Maithripala Sirisena who vowed to deliver on their demands, which included the release of all detainees.
Sirisena told the families that none of the demands “were a big deal and he’d be able to fulfil all of them.”
Despite this promise, the families are still campaigning to know the fate of their disappeared relatives.
When asked if the government had delivered on any of their demands, Leeladevi replied:
“The Sri Lankan government has not fulfilled any of its promises. It has strategised to intimidate and suppress our protests, but has not fulfilled any of its commitments or promises.”
Since the families began their continuous protests, they have been subjected to frequent intimidation, inquiries and visits by the Sri Lankan government’s intelligence agents. The families are also increasingly faced with physical violence by Sri Lankan police officers. Earlier this year, as the families headed to protest a visit by former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to Jaffna, they were blocked, beaten and pushed by Sri Lankan police officers.
Recounting that incident, Selvarani said:
“They forced our mothers to come down from the buses onto the road, pushed them onto the road, ripped their hair[…] many mothers suffered from serious injuries, they stomped on the throats of some of the female district leaders and made them crouch and hit their backs. That kind of torture is what the Sri Lankan police force has engaged in today.”
In spite of the intensive surveillance harassment they continue to face, Selvarani said that they will “not end this protest” until they know what happened to their forcibly disappeared loved ones.
Leeladevi and Selvarani also told us that they did not expect the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe to provide them with any answers or justice.
Wickremesinghe has previously declared that those who surrendered to the Sri Lankan military at the end of the armed conflict are “most probably dead”.
Leeladevi and Selvarani added that Wickremsinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa are just two sides of the same coin, therefore getting any justice from Wickremsinghe’s government is highly unlikely.
See the full transcript below:
The draft resolution has called on the Sri Lankan government to “re-energise” the Office of missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. What are your thoughts on this?
We even have a problem with the name, Office of Missing Persons. Our children did not go missing on their own, they were victims of enforced disappearances. Even before the OMP Act was instituted, we did not agree with any of its provisions. To establish the OMP Act, there were consultations that were held but none of the recommendations were incorporated into the Act. When the OMP was established, there was no transparency and none of our expectations were fulfilled. Eight of our district representatives travelled to Colombo, where we met the president and presidential secretary to convey our grievances. Moreover, we provided it in a memorandum outlining all the shortcomings and what needs to be revised. However they did not revise anything. In opposition to them, we wrote letters and we spoke to the media. During this time, they hurriedly opened the OMP. We protested against it because we knew unequivocally that we would not be able to obtain justice from this. We provided very specific shortcomings; we did not blindly oppose it. It was only after we had told them about the shortcomings and their refusal to revise it, that we began to oppose it. We protested all over, in Mattakalappu, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, to prevent its opening. At 4 am, we protested in Jaffna. We all got ready to protest, we were all from different districts waiting for the buses. They opened the office at 4 am and left. Similarly, in Kilinochchi, during the time period when the Covid-19 curfew was imposed, without anyone knowing, without even a board for the office, they opened the office and left. They secretly opened the office because they want to prove something to the UN, not to obtain justice for us. We clearly explained all of this to the UN and international diplomats. They listen to us attentively but then will tell us to give it a try and go visit the office. So because they weren’t listening to us, we obliged and visited. On May 17 2019, we met with all the commissioners in Colombo and spoke with them. We told them that if you think that the OMP can provide justice, we will give you the profiles of 5 forcibly disappeared persons. We told them that if they can solve at least one case within three months, we will trust the OMP. Just like that we gave them five profiles, and thus far we have only received acknowledgement of receipt of those five profiles. It’s been more than three years and to date they have not been able to resolve any one of those five profiles. There is no further example needed to prove that the OMP is an inactive mechanism. We are telling everyone that it’s an inactive mechanism. We are telling them not to trust it and that it is useless. However, even now in this report, when they say that the OMP needs to be ‘re-energised’, it honestly saddens us. We are telling them repeatedly, there are all these issues, we don’t want it, we do not want a domestic mechanism, we will not get justice through a domestic mechanism. This is a country that has forgiven someone who was given the death penalty and given him a promotion. They are imprisoning someone with no due process for having given food to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Even after saying all this, they do not accept or acknowledge our opinions. A path forward towards a solution must only be forged with the consent of victim-survivors. Even after reinforcing all this, telling all the diplomats who come, please do not impose the OMP on us, even after this, this is all a political process rather than one to provide a resolution to those affected.
Have any of your demands been met by the state since you started your roadside protests in 2017?
We started this protest in Kilinochchi. Until the 100th day, no one including the government asked why we were protesting. It was only on the 100th day, when we organised a larger scale protest that policemen came and asked us. We said it’s because we haven’t received a resolution. Immediately, the governor called us and talked to us. We told him that our issue has not been resolved and this is what we will do. He said to leave and that he will arrange for us to meet the President. We told him that we won’t believe words and asked for a written commitment. He immediately faxed it to the Kilinochchi GA who gave it to us. We withdrew once we received that. On June 12, 2017 we met them at the Governor’s office. We gave him our demands. He said he’s made a mistake and that he should have met us a long time ago. He said none of the demands were a big deal and he’d be able to fulfil all of them. I will ask them to release all those who have surrendered and gave us that promise. We were really happy. After that, we never heard back. Once he came to Kilinochchi, we blocked him on the road and told him that he did not respond to us, and asked him to respond there. He said he can’t talk here but he will tell his GA and arrange for us to talk to him at his office in Colombo in a relaxed setting. He came extremely late to the meeting and apologised. We said it was fine and tried to talk to him about the promise he gave us. Instead, he kept trying to talk about other things. We were speaking in Tamil and he took off his translation device and stared into space. I was talking passionately about our cause and the people beside me informed me that he had taken off his translation device. So I stopped talking after a while and then he put on his translation device again. I told him, Sir you took off your device when I was speaking and repeated everything I said. He took it off again. I went right up to him and argued with him saying we need a resolution. He said OK, go to the OMP and I explained all the shortcomings of the OMP and said we don’t want it so he said he would set up a new commission. We said all the commissions have been enough, we don’t want anymore commissions. We blocked him from trying to leave. He was saying he hadn’t eaten yet. At the end, we told him that this is our last meeting with him. We said we’d go to the international community. He said go to whoever you want, I know how to respond to them. From then on, we have been campaigning for international justice. The Sri Lankan government has not fulfilled any of its promises. It has strategized to intimidate and suppress our protests, but has not fulfilled any of its commitments or promises.
The High Commissioner’s report highlights the harassment and surveillance faced by the Tamil families of the disappeared. Could you tell us about any of your experiences and have you faced any harassment in the lead up to the UNHRC session?
Threats are faced by those protesting from 8 districts, and the 8 women leaders who are heading the associations of relations of enforced disappearances. Our woman leader, our 8 district secretary, 8 district relations. Conducting our protest is like protesting within a fire. For example, in 2018, I came to the UN. Upon coming back, I was hit with metal rods by disguised individuals. That month, on the 30th, I was called on for an investigation. Last March, there were plans for Mahinda Rajapaksa to come to Jaffna. At the time, 5 women leaders from the Northern districts were there protesting as well as mothers who had lost their relations. While they were travelling to protest his visit via bus, the vehicles were blocked in a deserted, forest area. They forced our mothers to come down from the buses onto the road, pulled them, pushed them onto the road, ripped their hair[…] many mothers suffered from serious injuries, they stomped on the throats of some of the female district leaders, made them crouch and hit their backs. That kind of torture is what the Sri Lankan police force has engaged in today.
Right now, we are continuing our protest in search of our relatives. We are not doing it in opposition to the government but we are asking the government, ‘where are our relatives that surrendered to you?’ After this issue came up at Geneva, they are trying to block us, intimidate us, send us threats.
When the P2P protest was taking place, the day before I was set to leave, I received four court orders. At 4 am, the police and military climbed over my gate. On our road, for 3 days, they were blocking my entrance. However, now, I have a case against me accusing me of having been a part of the protest.
Until our loved ones are found and the criminals responsible are prosecuted at the ICC, we will not leave this protest. No matter what happens, until we get the truth, we will not end this protest.
Do you think the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe will deliver on any of your demands?
Leeladevi and Selvarani:
The current president of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was running for election in 2015. He came to Kilinochchi and met the relatives of victims of enforced disappearances. He said “if you all help me win, I will find your children for you.” Some of the mothers fell at his feet and started wailing, begging him to find them their children. However, soon after his recent victory, and after a day of celebrating Thai Pongal, he said that no one is missing and that they have all died. We don’t believe that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who said that on a day that is so auspicious to Tamils, that he will help us find our children. We have years of experience. We know how he acts. We know the ways in which he acts like a slow poison. Because of that, we do not expect that he will provide us with any resolution. Moreover, we saw first-hand how he intimidated and suppressed protests by those of his own race. If Mahinda Rajapaksa is on one side of a coin, he is on the other. Otherwise, our problem will not be resolved by him.
Coconut flour is sweet inside Kolukattai. Coconut flour is sweet inside Mothagam. Just like that, Mahinda Rajapaksa is one form. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the same form. Ranil Wickremesinghe is only thinking about how to suppress our protest. How many protests that Tamils’ have organised have they suppressed, have they thwarted, how many of our relatives have they killed? The first person instigating that is Ranil Wickremesinghe in my opinion.