Families of missing people in Sri Lanka skeptical of government promises

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Mar 19 (EFE).- A. Jiffriya has barely missed a single protest by relatives of the victims of forced disappearances since her son vanished without trace 13 years ago, making up one of the thousands of cases in Sri Lanka that the government promised to look into.

Recently, the country’s authorities announced measures that include compensation and official certificates of death or disappearance.

However, these have been met with the skepticism of families accustomed to institutional apathy as they continue to demand justice following the end of the civil war between the army and the Tamil guerrillas during 1983-2009.

Jiffriya, 64, recalled the last time she spoke to her son, whom she remembers as a loving young man who could not harm anyone. He was 24.

He was traveling with several young men, including someone from a wealthy family, when they were allegedly abducted by a group that included several Sri Lankan navy officers.

“When he last spoke to me, he said he was at a camp in Trincomalee (in the northeast coast of the country). He told me they were waiting for the parents of another boy who was kidnapped, to pay a ransom,” Jiffriya told EFE.

But the money never came and that was the last time Jiffriya heard from her son, some 13 years ago.

The group blamed for the kidnapping is accused of having abducted 10 other men, none of whom returned home. All the court cases related to them are still pending.

The civil war in Sri Lanka caused between 60,000 and 100,000 deaths, as well as tens of thousands of cases of enforced disappearances, according to unofficial figures.

Earlier this week, the Sri Lankan government promised to take further steps to attend to the wounds from the civil war, while also facing pressure from the international community over the years over its slow pace of national reconciliation.

Cabinet spokesperson and Minister for Media, Dullas Alahapperuma, announced that the cabinet has decided to provide death certificates and missing person certificates to families whose members went missing.

The government has also announced compensation of 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $377) and land transfers in some cases, against a backdrop of severe economic crisis in the island nation.

“We are on route to providing justice to our own citizens who went missing about three decades ago,” Alahapperuma stressed.

According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Sri Lanka has the second largest number of enforced disappearances in the world.

The exact numbers, however, continue to be a matter of debate in the country.

The Sri Lankan Office of Missing Persons, established in 2017, said in a recent report that it has documented a total of 21,374 cases of enforced disappearances, whereas Alahapperuma mentioned “some 14,400 persons” who disappeared since 1988.

However, according to the nonprofit Amnesty International, this figure goes up to around 60,000.

The rights watchdog, in its Mar.1 report, has underlined the continued inaction of the authorities as despite prevalent domestic mechanisms, the country repeatedly failed to respond to and deliver justice for what is considered crime under international law and a serious violation of human rights.

The government’s latest announcement has been received coldly by several of the families of those who went missing.

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