Sri Lanka's Tragic Missing

More journalists have gone missing in a country that is becoming notorious for missing journalists. Missing along with them is Sarath Fonseka, the popular former military commander who dared to challenged Mahinda Rajapakse to another term as president.

During the last week, three women have tried to speak to Sri Lanka about the tragedy that each of them has faced. They are Sandya Eknaliyagoda, the wife of Prageeth Ekanaliyagoda, a journalist for Lanka E-News who disappeared on Jan.24, two days before the national elections; Hemali Abeyratne, the wife of Chandana Sirimalwattha, the detained editor of Lanka E-News; the third is Anoma Fonseka, Fonseka's wife. They have all called for respect for the basic rights of their husbands, and asked the nation to assist them in finding justice.

These women are crying for justice in a background in which Rajapakse has begun his second term. In the government camp there are celebrations and boundless boasts about their great victories; triumphalism is being exhibited in every way and of course, there are the photographs appearing of the joy of families close to the president's side.

Such is the way the nation is divided now. The three women reflect a reality shared by many thousands of others. There are widows, mothers and sisters of literally tens of thousands of others in the north and east who are also asking for their husbands, sons and brothers. They too have been crying for many years for justice, with few choosing to listen. There are also literally tens of thousands of others in the south who have been demanding the same for a long time, their lives cut asunder by factors beyond their control and their grasp.

What they all demand is simple – the observance of the legal process relating to the issues of their husbands. Sandya Eknaliyagoda demands that the Inspector General of Police find her missing husband; she fears that the reason for his sudden disappearance is the criticism he has made against the president in his writing, yet the IGP has demonstrated that there is nothing he can do. Hemali Abeyratne demands the release of her husband, who is being detained only because he is the editor of a journal that opposed the president during the last election.

She states that this is no offence, and if any crime was committed that it should be dealt with it under the normal process of law, not the secret process of national security. Anoma Fonseka demands the same: the observance of due process. She has asked the nation to assist her in preventing an act of political revenge, taken simply because her husband dared to contest the election. In short, all of them demand reasonable treatment for their loved ones.

Can the nation be of any assistance? Under the normal circumstances it is the law that should come to their aid. But the complaint of all three is that the law has been absent. The issue of due process is, for these three women and many thousands like them, not some abstract issue, but they do not know where to turn to in order to have it observed. The police seem unable to find missing husbands, particularly when the suspects behind their disappearance have the patronage of those in power. At that point the police investigation system does not work. The law does not work either, when national security is invoked to arrest somebody simply for being the editor of a publication. And the law is not working at all when the matter is taken away from the country's courts and referred to a military tribunal, as is the case with Sarath Fonseka.

How will the nation respond to the cry of these three women? When there is no law to turn to, how can other citizens respond? Is this what all citizens can expect to experience during Rajapakse's second term?

Some came to the street and were met with tear gas. Will the lorries carrying water cannons and tear gas be the only response that the government will have? These, and armed thugs protected by special police teams. The thugs were displaying sticks, chains, swords and iron rods openly but the police did not arrest them. They were transported by unknown groups (which appeared to be underworld with the support of the police).

The pattern is that the thugs occupy a place among the peaceful protesters and at some point attack them. When the people retaliate the police come to the protection of the thugs and tear gas and baton charge the protesters. Then the police arrest a number of peaceful protesters but none of the thugs. Such is the way the citizens who go to answer the cry of those who demand justice are treated.

These three women, like most women in Sri Lanka today, are capable of understanding in the abstract words like, law, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process and justice. But where do they see these things in real life? In their own homes their own husbands are being denied any of these things.

In a country where resorting to the law no longer brings reasonable relief, tear gas and even worse responses may be what is waiting for those who try to respond to the cry of their fellow citizens who demand justice.

Basil Fernando is the head of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a regional non-governmental organization monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia.