By Camelia Nathaniel.
Brito Fernando, President of the Families of the Disappeared, says that the government is under the impression that just like the Rajapaksa regime, they can gather support from Opposition members by offering them ministerial positions within the national government and covering up the charges against them. He points out when the 19th Amendment was brought in, some had felt that as long as something constructive for the country and its democracy was done, it was all right even if the government bought over MPs. However, Fernando told The Sunday Leader that if the government worked in a more transparent manner and won over the confidence and trust of the people, they will not need to fish for opposition MPs by bribing them, in order to solidify their position, and the people will invariably support them.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Sri Lanka has to submit a report to the UNHRC in June. Do you think we have done enough with regard to the commitment that was undertaken?
A: There are two main factors for consideration, one being the setting up of the task force, which is moving at a very slow pace, but its satisfactory that at least the work has commenced. And the other is the agreement to ratify the UN Convention. In addition, although we are aware of various talks being held at various locations, we don’t see a collective union of these various groups.
For example there are offices set up by Chandrika Bandaranaike, Mangala Samaraweera, Mano Ganesan, D. M. Swaminathan and in addition there are several committees functioning under the Prime Minister. However, in spite of all these various parties functioning independently, there is no consensus among them. Therefore, under these circumstances, even the two steps that were taken have no significance for the families of the disappeared and they don’t feel it.
If the government thinks that they can escape by simply saying that they are working together with the civil organisations, then it is a grave wrong that the government is doing. They may try to go to the UNHRC confidently in June and say that the task force has been established by civil society organisations and the promises made are still being worked on. But this is not the reality on the ground.
However, it is not that we don’t understand the pressure the government is under from Southern extremist forces, and the government needs to work with caution when it comes to matters pertaining to the military. However, I feel that all parties working toward this goal should work together to challenge these extremist southern forces and a clear time frame should be made public for the tasks that need to be achieved or goals that need to be accomplished. The government must give a clear time frame for what they are going to do.
For instance the certificate of absence, even this is still not done. Of course I understand there are legal hurdles, but I don’t think that there are such grave legal issues that justifies such a long period taken for this process. Similarly there are measures that can be taken by the government quite easily, like publishing the list of names of the disappeared, but even these are still not done and they are dragging their feet. The reports of the commissions should have been released as this was a promise that was made during the previous regime. At least there are so many instances of disappearances where evidence is available and the government could have commenced investigations on these. But they have not done it so far.
Under these circumstances on the one hand I am pleased that after 25 years a government has made a promise to address these issues on the disappeared, and their agreement to ratify the UN convention. However this is not enough to win the trust of the families of the disappeared.
Q: As activists, what are these civil society organisations doing in order to push the government to expedite these processes?
A: We are trying to support the government to challenge the extremist forces who are trying to derail this process, with their famous slogan ‘do not touch our forces.’ On the other hand we are also gearing to push the government to move their feet on the slow pace in implementing the promised actions.
Q: The government keeps calling back those who had to flee the country during the past. However there are allegations that the government is not sincere in their invitation. What is your take on this?
A: Although the government has invited these parties to return to the country, these people have little or no faith in the government’s actions apart from just their word.
Even in the case of Kumar Gunaratnam, we are of the view that if the government invited people to return, even if they have differing political views, and they are seeking their citizenship back, then the government has to take measures to meet these requests. However, seeing what is happening now, those wanting to return will think twice about returning, taking into consideration what is happening to those who have returned.
The measures or the assurances that the government is giving to these people to return is totally inadequate to give them the confidence to return. Some are a bit skeptical if this government will even last. The various contradicting statements made by the leaders and other developments have put some doubt into their minds and they are waiting to see what happens before they decide to return.
However if the government is inviting those who fled the country to return, then even if they have committed certain wrongs, the government should make certain concessions in order to facilitate their return.
Q: Do you see Sri Lanka on a constructive path of reconciliation?
A: There are verbal promises made and some Geneva promises. For instance the land issues. The military is occupying the lands of the people, but the government is more powerful than the military and they should be able to take a decision and release these lands. This is one of the ways that the government can show their commitment and sincerity to the Tamil people. Even the easiest measures that the government can take are being ignored and the government is dragging their feet on the whole reconciliation process.
The government has so far failed to win the confidence and trust of the people in terms of the reconciliation process. It’s not that the government is not doing anything. There is greater freedom than before, but the progress made is not significant enough.
Q: The government is of the view that through a new constitution and power devolution, they can win the trust of the Tamil people and other minority groups. Do you think the new constitution can resolve all the ethnic issues and win over the minority communities?
A: There are two major problems in the constitution. One being that the Tamils given some leverage to ensure their identity and freedom. The other is that the constitution should not give priority to any religion and the constitution should be one that does not include any religious preference. These are the two main problems faced by the country. Hence the government should take a firm stand on these two issues and face whatever criticism or opposition that they have to face, and stand firm.
There is no purpose in drafting a new constitution if the clauses included are not implemented. Then these will just remain in the constitution just like the 13th Amendment. Hence the government should take a firm stand and they should stand by their decision and not be swayed due to any pressure from any party. On the two issues I mentioned earlier, the government should be firm and act steadfastly without bowing down to pressure.
Q: The current government came to power on the promise of eradicating corruption. But corruption is still rampant. How do you see this situation?
A: It is very clear that corruption is still prevalent but I would not go as far as to say it is in the same magnitude as the previous regime. Although there are allegations that there was corruption within the previous regime, we cannot be satisfied that the measures taken to bring those responsible to justice are adequate.
Although we understand that certain legal frameworks are required to prosecute those responsible for corruption, we still feel that the commitment and interest of the government is inadequate.
There are also many allegations regarding the present regime, for instance the 65,000 houses in the North. So it’s not that the current regime is free of corruption, but what we feel is that the measures taken to minimise corruption is totally inadequate. However, as a civil society leader, no matter what, I am ready to do my best to prevent Mahinda Rajapaksa from coming back to power.
(Original caption – Govt. Should Not Fish For Opposition MPs – Brito Fernando )