Going through the figures released by the Census Department, I was struck again by the contrast between data based on investigation and wild claims based on general statements and suppositions. The most recent example of this occurs in the book by Frances Harrison which is rapidly becoming the new Bible of critics of Sri Lanka, following on the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss. Interestingly the Petrie Report does not seem on the way to iconic status, perhaps because its selective attacks on UN officials, with no regard for truth, was too much for any establishment to stomach.
I cannot but reiterate enough however that the perpetuation of much of this hype is our own fault. Whereas we should have engaged straight away, as possible, in systematic investigation of the fate of all Sri Lankan citizens, we allowed several years to lapse before setting in motion any mechanisms at all. And now that we have the census data, we have done nothing about it that will facilitate refutation in the public domain of the claims of Harrison and her ilk.
This is the more astonishing in that we have long known how statistics can be regurgitated to haunt us. The legacy of the disappearances during the second JVP insurrection continues to dominate the records about Sri Lanka maintained by the Working Group on Disappearances. Sadly there was no systematic effort to convey the findings of the several Commissions set up in President Kumaratunga’s time to the WGD. Though at intervals the Foreign Ministry tried, together with the Attorney General’s Department, to work on this later, those efforts too were sporadic. And though we did our best when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, leading for the first time in ages to positive comments on our engagement in WGD reports, that too was abandoned when the Ministry was shut down. Responses to communiqués ceased, leading to the harsh criticism that has resurfaced in recent WGD pronouncements.
The problem now is that there is no agency able to take charge of issues like this. Whilst the ideal solution is to revive the Ministry of Human Rights, combining it with Reconciliation, which is also something to which obvious candidates for the position such as Mahinda Samarasinghe or D E W Gunasekara or Sarath Amunugama could contribute much, such a Ministry would also need, which is basically for coordination, would also need to work with a dedicated agency.
Given the delicacy of the subject, and the need to trawl through information from a range of sources, it would make sense for such an agency to function on the lines of the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. That was headed, from soon after the war ended, by extremely distinguished army officers. They were able to work together with international agencies whilst always ensuring that work was in accordance with government plans and programmes.
Typically, the LLRC Action Plan, in accordance with the stress laid on disappearances involving culpability, has only one item with regard to general disappearances. This is a pity because, while we must certainly investigate and deal with cases in which individuals are alleged to have disappeared after surrendering, there are many more cases of anguish caused by uncertainty. That anguish must be assuaged, and for that purpose we need coordination to ensure investigation as well as the appropriate therapy.
A Bureau headed by a sensitive and efficient military official would also be able to liaise effectively with international agencies working in this field. The ICRC has much experience of such work, dating back to its initial entry to Sri Lanka twenty years ago (which was welcomed by the Liberal Party in an article entitled ‘In Pursuit of Change’), and checking its records against those of the Census Department would produce more precise information, while also helping us to deal with the wild allegations made against us by the Darusman Report stable.
I am in fact surprised that we have not made better use of the work done by the Census Department. Their figures indicate only 2635 persons who went missing in 2009, and of these well over half are in the 20-39 ages groups. By contrast, only 237 are in the 40 and above groups. This would suggest that many of those who went missing were involved in hostilities, though we should of course remember that this was largely because of forced conscription by the LTTE.
With regard to youngsters too, while there are 699 missing in the 10 to 19 age group, which also suggests military involvement given the LTTE habit of grabbing children at 10, there are only 73 missing who were under 10.
In short, these figures make it clear that the allegations of indiscriminate shelling are nonsensical. Of course we would need to check these figures against those of the ICRC and any other agency involved in such work, but an initial examination suggests that the majority of disappearances, and hence deaths, relate to the category of those likely to have been forced into combat, and not into the category of civilians, with no involvement, suffering from collateral damage.
But as I have often said, while we will need to spend time, wastefully, in combating the more outrageous criticisms, what is more important is to look into these cases, for which we should categorize them by District or Division. We should then set up teams to work with the bereaved, to trace more information if possible, and also provide counseling and other support as needed. An agency on the lines I have suggested could coordinate the work of committed organizations such as NEST which have already begun work on psycho-social support, to ensure that all areas are covered. Working systematically on such support mechanisms would do much to fulfil the objectives laid down by the LLRC.