Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3) is an international observance promoted by the United Nations since 1992. The observance of the day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It is meant to have as much significance as other better known days, such as International Human Rights Day or International Women’s Day. It was on Disabilities Day that the National Peace Council held the inaugural meeting of its inter-religious committee in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the LTTE, which saw heavy fighting seven years ago. The event itself was held in the Cooperative Hall which, according to an inscription on the wall, had been opened by the Hon Namal Rajapaksa during the period of the last government.

The large hall in which social and educational events take place is part of the massive infrastructure development that the former government engaged in the North and East in the belief that it would win the hearts and minds of the people. The former government’s political strategy with regard to the people living in the former war zones of the North and East was that economic development would suffice, and it was not necessary to either ascertain the truth about the past or to address the political issues that had given rise to the war. But this belief was shown to be incorrect as the Tamil voters in the North and East voted repeatedly against the government that provided them with economic infrastructure but without attending to their individual basic needs or to their collective need for political rights.

A large and well attended event to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities took place on the ground floor of the two storey Cooperative Hall. Those who attended were family members of the disabled persons. Some were blind, some were in wheelchairs while many walked relatively normally but with limbs that were missing. The event that I had come to participate in was upstairs. The level of participation was less than we had expected. During the discussions that followed it became clearer why this was so. We were chided for having organized our event on International Disabilities Day. This day has significance in Kilinochchi and other Wanni districts where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place. One participant advised us that this was a day that must be given as much importance as International Human Rights Day or International Peace Day, and asked us whether we held a regular event on such a day instead of celebrating it.

NEGLECTED PERSONS
However, our shortcoming enabled a discussion to take place on the issue of persons with disabilities in Kilinochchi. According to statistics available at the central government’s district secretariat, there are over 3285 persons with disabilities. But only 483 of them are being provided with the Rs 3000 grant to which they are entitled. It was also reported that the Northern Provincial Council has given a much larger figure for people with disabilities as being in the region of 18,000. The large disparity in numbers may be on account of different measures where it concerns disabilities. We were told that people with disabilities could include those who had no outer disability but had bullets inside them. These could also be chronic pain and mental trauma. Most recent reports on the health effects of war have focused on post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, many of which are not identified as war-related disabilities until years after conflict ends.

The neglect of those who have disabilities in terms of obtaining financial assistance is often made worse by the discrimination they suffer in their daily lives. We were told that it was more difficult for those who had disabilities to get licenses for driving, even when they had passed their driving tests successfully. In addition they find it difficult to get into buildings that have not been constructed in a way to facilitate their entry and movement. A greater governmental demonstration of empathy for those with disabilities in the Wanni would make the general population feel that the government is concerned about those who are victims and contribute to the post-war healing process not only for those with disabilities but also for the general population.

Another point that was stressed in the discussion was the importance of caring for individuals as opposed to thinking of macro or political solutions only. At the present time the government is giving priority attention to issues of constitutional reform. The government has expressed its determination to seize the present opportunity when it has the two largest political parties in alliance and have also obtained the support of all the ethnic minority parties. In particular it will want to focus on finding a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict and to set in place a constitutional settlement that can be built upon in the future as well according to the changing needs of the country’s multi ethnic and plural polity. However, at the same time it is important that the individual needs of war affected people should also be given priority attention.

PRIORITY CONCERN
At the top of the list of concerns of the people of the Wanni is the fate of missing persons. The government commission on missing persons (the Paranagama Commission) reported that there were about 20,000 complaints of missing persons that they had recorded. These are people who continue to be missing seven years after the end of the war. The logical conclusion would be to assume that most of them are no longer alive. However, those who are relatives of missing persons, and those who saw them surrender to the security forces at the closing stages of the war, are not prepared to accept blanket statements about the fate of those they saw go missing. They say they saw the missing persons being registered and photographed prior to their disappearance. So someone somewhere will know what happened. At the discussion in Kilinochchi it was emphasized that the affected people will not accept blanket statements but will require individual accounts of what happened to be provided to them.

The government is today seeking to implement the transitional justice process that the international community has set for it, and is about to announce new mechanisms to follow the Office of Missing Persons that was recently put into law. These measures need to be accompanied by more caring for individual victims. Institutions such as truth commissions will help to create awareness in the general population about the true nature of war and those who were victims. It will create empathy and strengthen the resolve of society that the resort to arms and to violence must never again come to be. It will also give relief to those who are victims that they are able to tell their stories to the state, that must care for all equally, and demonstrate this care by going into the details of what happened to them and give them the answers they need to have.

At the end of our meeting at the Cooperative Hall, we were invited by one of the religious clergy to visit an orphanage and home for mentally disturbed persons. We met with young children who had lost their parents for various reasons. One of them was a child who lost her entire family in a bomb blast. I recalled that six years ago on a visit to Trincomalee I had been shown another child in another orphanage. Her mother had been killed as the family fled the last battles, and she had refused to move from her mother’s side until her father agreed to stop their fleeing from the battle zones to bury the body. Six years later the needs of these war victims need to be addressed better by the Sri Lankan state. Macro level change, such as constitutional reform, is difficult to achieve as it is politically controversial, and so is delayed. But this excuse cannot be given where it concerns giving a strong message of care to those who have been victims by reintegrating them into the mainstream society and giving them individualized care.

There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage. In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”

There are indications of political maneuvering behind efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. The rising number of incidents of hate speech and local level acts of violence that appear to have communal undertones has prompted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to issue a strong statement that received national coverage. In her statement she noted the rise of hate speech in Sri Lanka in the recent past, which challenges the initiatives being taken by the government to heal the country after decades of bloodshed and destruction. She said that “Hate filled expressions and actions by groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning, denigrating and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds has no place in Sri Lankan society.”

The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in parliament indicates that the Government of National Unity continues to hold. The differences in opinion between the government partners that sometimes manifest themselves openly have not as yet destroyed their relationship. The most recent tug of war was over the actions of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. President Maithripala Sirisena was openly critical of the manner in which the Commission was handling high profile cases. This led to the resignation of the Director General of the Commission.

The Sri Lankan reaction to the outcome of the US election reflected the ethnic divide at its extremes. Even prior to the election Tamil nationalist politicians had dashed coconuts at temples to bring victory to Hillary Clinton. They believed that she would ensure that the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka would remain on the US government’s list of priorities due to the interest she had shown in these matters in the past. After the election Sinhalese nationalists expressed their satisfaction at the victory of a kindred spirit who shared the same antipathy towards outsiders to the extent of physically building a wall to keep them out and put his country first. Those who were somewhere in the middle between these competing nationalisms and who looked upon the United States as the country were the values of universal human rights are upheld, renewed and regenerated were dismayed, although this is only likely to be a temporary setback to a nation that is nurtured on the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The government’s handling of the Central Bank bond issue has generated a wave of public opinion that is critical of it. Even those who voted for the government and count themselves as government supporters have been placed in a situation of consternation. High among the reasons many of them cast their votes against the former government was its corruption. They expected that the new government would speedily deal with those who had been guilty of corruption. But the manner in which government members have been handling the Central Bank bond issue and their reluctance to have a transparent probe into it, has led to a feeling among government supporters of being left with no political champions of good governance any more.

President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the Armed Forces, ‘Gallantry Awards 2016,’ last week said that certain media organisations, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and traitorous forces act without realizing the importance of ensuring national security. The President, who is constitutionally vested with the authority of Commander-in-Chief of the Sri Lankan security forces said he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs. A sore point for the security forces with regard to NGOs would be the demand for war-time accountability and for post-war demilitarization of the former war zones of the North and East. Some NGOs have been in the forefront of the UN-sponsored resolution that calls for an investigation into the past and for post-war demilitarization among others.

The common cause of the National Unity Government to tackle the corruption of the past and to put an end to it in the present seemed to come apart at the seams when President Maithripala Sirisena made an angry critique of the way in which the investigations into corruption was taking place. The resignation of Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was prompted by the President’s remarks on CIABOC and on the police investigative agencies in the wake of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three retired Navy commanders, being brought before courts. The President criticized the investigative bodies of launching politically motivated probes which led to the senior officials being put behind bars during the proceedings in court.

The furor over the the Eluga Thamil (Tamils arise) rally that took place in Jaffna last month is receding. At those protests a powerful and angry people’s movement was in evidence, led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, and organised by the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), an organisation that the Chief Minister heads. In addition, several Tamil political parties, including some constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) participated. The demands put forward by the organizers included a call for federalism with the rights to sovereignty and self determination of the Tamil nation recognized, return of land in the Army’s control, release of political prisoners, an international investigation into war crimes and addressing concerns relating to missing persons were prominent. There were also clear anti-south manifestations in the slogans, which included a call to halt to putting up Buddhist shrines in the North and a call to stop southern fishermen, but without a mention of the massive encroachments by Indian fishermen.

Among the systems of good governance put into place after the watershed elections of January 2015, the 19th Amendment to the constitution takes pride of place. Over the past one and a half years there have been other path breaking legal enactments also, such as the Office of Missing Persons Act (OMP) and the Right to Information Act (RTI) which have the potential to transform the way governance takes place in the country. If implemented in a positive spirit, the OMP can bring closure to the grief of families of the disappeared and serve as a deterrent to future resorts to enforced disappearances. The RTI can pave the way for more transparent governance so that what the government says and does is not out of sync. However, these are still in the future, as they need to be implemented.