Sri Lankan President reportedly pledges to look for missing persons from civil war, release list

Sri Lankan President reportedly pledges to look for missing persons from civil war, release list

Sri Lankan President reportedly pledges to look for missing persons from civil war, release list

Updated 13 June 2017, 22:35 AEST

Sri Lanka's President reportedly agrees to release a list of of people who "disappeared" or were detained during the country's bitter 26-year ethnic conflict, after a group of women stage a nearly four-month-long protest.

Sri Lankan Tamils have welcomed an apparent presidential commitment to release a list of wartime 'disappeared' and detained persons, but have condemned the overall lack of reconciliation progress.

However, President Maithripala Sirisena's office said he had only agreed to examine their request.

The President yesterday met a group of Kilinochchi women who had staged a nearly four-month-long sit-in protest, seeking information on loved ones who disappeared during the country's bitter 26-year ethnic conflict.

The meeting came following a spate of attacks on Muslims, prompting accusations the Government was backing away from its vow to uphold minority rights, for fear of losing popular support.

The Kilinochchi protest leader, Leela Devi, said the meeting with the President — footage of which was shown on Sri Lankan television — last for about 40 minutes.

"We met with him and discussed our demands," she explained.

Sri Lanka's bloody, decades-long civil war ended in 2009 with the Tamil Tiger rebels' defeat.

It is estimated 80,000 to 100,000 died and approximately half that again are still unaccounted for.

Some Tamils remain deeply suspicious that secret Government detention camps still exist.

Ms Devi's son surrendered to the Sri Lankan military in 2009, and has not been seen since.

"He, President Sirisena, he told us there are no secret camps, and there are no prisons, no one is in the jail, he told us like that," she told the ABC.

The Kilinochchi demonstrators want to know who was detained during and after the war, details of how and where they were held, and ultimately to know their fate.

Ms Devi said in yesterday's meeting, the President made an important promise — a list.

But a spokesman for the President said he had agreed only to "examine their request and take necessary measures to find the whereabouts of their missing relatives".

Broader inquiry stalled

Nearly eight years after it ended, the conflict's broader horrors are yet to be examined.

Despite the Sirisena Government agreeing to a UN resolution demanding an internationally supervised inquiry, and even passing legislation for a missing persons office, nothing has happened, and anger is growing.

"The present regime says the right things, gives the right assurances, but is afraid to do the right thing," Tamil MP Mathiaparanam Abraham Sumanitiran, who represents the northern district of Jaffna, said.

"Our people had lots of expectation when the regime changed, and that is why they are protesting."

Mr Sirisena was the Tamils' great hope, and darling of the international community, when his moderate Freedom party ousted wartime leader Mahinda Rajapaksa's Sinhalese nationalists in 2015.

He vowed to stamp out corruption and promised a truth and reconciliation style inquiry into the war.

But observers said he had squandered the opportunity.

Prospects weakened by resurgent nationalist opposition

While the Government has become mired in constitutional reform, Mr Rajapaksa's nationalists have since regained strength, and control of the post-war narrative, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, founder of Sri Lanka's Centre for Policy Alternatives, said.

"They [the Government] have allowed the Opposition to define transitional justice as the process by which war heroes will be turned into war criminals," he said.

Dr Saravanamuttu, considered among the country's foremost political analysts, is critical of Mr Sirisena for passing legislation for a missing persons office, but not establishing it while his popularity was still high.

"A lot of hope was raised when this Government came in," he said.

Dr Saravanamuttu said the dearth of action since had given the appearance the missing persons legislation "was passed, merely to appease the international community, and that it was not a genuine commitment to doing something about the disappeared."

"The whole attitude seems to be one of wanting to placate the Sinhala right," he said.

Anti-Muslim attacks raise further questions

There were also doubts regarding police efforts to track down and arrest one hard-line monk whose party is accused of instigating a recent wave of hate attacks against the country's Muslim minority.

Galagodaatte Gnanasara, head of the radical Buddhist Force or BBS, went into hiding in late May and has not been seen since.

Tamil politician Sumanitiran believes authorities have not moved against him, fearing a backlash from his supporters.

"It is this reluctance by the Government, to take head-on the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiments and forces, that is allowing the situation to deteriorate," he said.

Reconciliation push continues

Mr Sirisena's apparent willingness to release a list of detained people — if it happens — will be an important development.

Ms Devi said she and her fellow demonstrators would continue their push for more meaningful reconciliation.

"We are not satisfied — peaceful protest is continuing," she said.

Ms Devi said she and others wanted to know simply "what happened, in this country?"

For Sri Lanka, the answers will certainly be painful and divisive, and as every year passes since the war ended, they will also become more elusive.