04 August 2013

Time to act on the ‘disappeared’

Thirty years ago, if a Grade 10 child in Sri Lanka wrote ‘He was disappeared’ he or she would have been ‘corrected’ by the English teacher.  ‘Disappeared’ back then was the past tense of the verb disappear.  ‘Disappeared’ was not something that was done to someone, it was something that one did out of choice, like making oneself scarce after perpetrating some minor offence. 

‘Disappeared’ is what was DONE to people in the late eighties.  Disappearing, however, was not the preserve of the eighties.  People were disappeared in their hundreds in 1971.  Way back in 1818 it was not only people that were disappeared. In what was probably the worst act of genocide this country has known, the British under Robert Brownrigg systematically slaughtered all males over the age of 18. They killed all cattle, burnt homes and destroyed property.  Herbert White, a British Government Agent in Badulla after the rebellion minuted thus:
"It is a pity that there is no evidence left behind to show the exact situation in Uva in terms of population or agriculture development after the rebellion. The new rulers are unable to come up to any conclusion on the exact situation of Uva before the rebellion as there is no trace of evidence left behind to come to such conclusions. If thousands died in the battle they were all fearless and clever fighters. If one considers the remaining population of 4/5 after the battle to be children, women and the aged, the havoc caused is unlimited. In short the people have lost their lives and all other valuable belongings. It is doubtful whether Uva has at least now recovered from the catastrophe."

Today the focus is on those who disappeared or are unaccounted for, those who were ‘disappeared’ as some put it, during the last phase of the war on terrorism, not forgetting of course those who were ‘white-vanned’ (verb).  Time is of no relevance to the disappeared.  It is those who left behind and those who had to suffer consequences of erasure decades and centuries after the fact that need answers and redress from those who benefited on account of lineage or citizenship.  The disappearing perpetrated in the last 2 centuries needs to be investigated.  The left-behind obtained ‘closure’ one way or the other, which includes the finality accorded by their own deaths.  Naturally, the greater focus is on the most recent and rightly so because the left-behind are still alive and therefore answer-requirement and closure-need have more immediacy, not to mention that they are amenable to being pawned (another verb) by political chess players. 

It is a necessary exercise not just for the near and dear but for all citizens of the country. It is natural for the left-behind and those whose preferred outcomes did not materialize to demand immediate investigation.  But crocodile-tear politicking need not frame prioritizing in a post-conflict scenario.  The USA has still not obtained closure or reconciliation from the Civil War of the 19th Century.  If anyone says it has, whisper the name ‘Trayvon Martin’.  Four years, is thus ‘relatively short’, and for this reason the decision to launch a full scale investigation into ‘disappearing’ is to be welcomed. 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a champion of human rights during his younger days and indeed a lone voice raising questions about summary executions, proxy arrests, torture and state-sponsored vigilante groups, has a moral responsibility to see this to the end, whether it is bitter or otherwise.  He is a man who knows much about timing, both for political expediency and for greater chance at ascertaining truth.  Perhaps this might be the best time, given the ground work done by way of multiple enumeration exercises, a cooling of tempers with time and a greater readiness to move on by all stakeholders. 

The numbers tossed around are politically coated.  The Government and the early estimates by those associated with the UN gave us ‘7000’ unaccounted for.  Channel 4 and others with dubious credentials when it comes to professionalism and ethics in reporting put the number at 40,000 with some even offering ‘80,000’.  There are many ways to get at the true number.  It is all about ‘who, where and when’.  Census data is lacking, but painstaking enumeration with cross checks is not impossible.  Hospitals and schools functioned, provisions were supplied and children were vaccinated. 
Those who remain can give names of those who are absent.  There are ‘non-disappeared’ ways of disappearing.  LTTE fighters who died also ‘disappeared’.  Those caught in crossfire are gone.  Those who fled the fighting zones are also unaccounted for. Even after the LTTE was vanquished there were people who skirted the registration process.  One thing is certain. It is not impossible to collect names. It is not impossible to investigate claims.  Thousands fled the fighting and came to other parts of the country. Thousands left the island.  In this exercise it is imperative that the countries which gave ‘refuge’ cooperate, providing relevant information. 

The country needs to move on and getting past the ‘disappeared’ is necessary.  It cannot and should not be done by cover-up or piling ‘today’s news’ over it.  And for that exercise to be meaningful, 1988-89, 1971, 1818 and 1848 need to be revisited.  No one can demand one but not the other for that would be an insult to the disappeared and a prostitution of the true tears shed by those they left behind.