COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was full of tourists. But when the flight landed in Colombo nearly all of these passengers set off for the transit lounge. Their destination was not Colombo, which was only a stopover on the way to Maldives. That night Colombo airport was quite empty. The airport’s duty free shops were quite empty too. The staff at these shops stood outside their shops competing with each other to bring in the few passengers who had disembarked and come in through immigration. The contrast was so stark with other airports where the sales staff does not need to engage in high pressure salesmanship. The much advertised success of the tourist industry was not much in evidence at the airport.

Travel advisories of the developed countries warn potential tourists about the dangers they might have to face in Sri Lanka. For example the UK government has issued a travel advisory that states “The security forces have imposed restrictions preventing all foreign passport holders (including British nationals) travelling to the Northern Province. All foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north must get prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines. See Local travel – North. Political rallies in Sri Lanka have sometimes turned violent. You should avoid any political gatherings or rallies. See Political situation. There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See Terrorism.”

A key reason for the relatively low success rate of Sri Lanka in comparison with other tourist destinations is the continuing political instability and controversial human rights issues that have gained international attention. The application form for a tourist specifically mentions that dealings with NGOs are not permitted on a tourist visa. Together with the travel restrictions to the North, this reveals that there are restrictions on tourists due to political and security concerns. The message is that Sri Lanka is still not a normal peacetime country, but one that is grappling to come to terms with the three decade long war and its aftermath. This is a form of collateral damage to Sri Lanka. It is not surprising that tourists prefer to travel to other tourist destinations and give Sri Lanka a miss, even when they transit through Colombo airport.

Last week there was a public meeting on the International Day of the Disappeared. According to the petition handed over to politicians, human rights groups and diplomats, the number of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka since the 1980s (when the JVP insurrection took place) was noted to be very high. According to the petition, “The government’s efforts to address this issue, investigating cases of enforced disappearances to provide redress to their families, to hold those responsible to account and to memorialize those missing appropriately, have been wholly inadequate.” In these days of internet and web-based communications, these messages are not limited to Sri Lanka but go out to the world.

The organization of Families of the Disappeared have reported getting threats when they planned a public meeting in memory of those who have gone missing in Sri Lanka’s many conflicts over these past four decades. The meeting they were having was an annual gathering at Raddologama near Seeduwa, at which there is a monument to the disappeared persons. This was far away from the North of the country which is a sensitive location to the government on account of its link to the possibility of providing evidence of war crimes. But that did not preclude them from getting attacked. One of the organizers of the event Brito Fernando reported that he and other organizers had been getting threatening telephone calls.

In addition, posters had come up naming those who would speak on the occasion as traitors. Brito’s house was stoned at night. However, those who sought to disrupt the event failed to accomplish their task. More than 300 persons attended the commemoration. Most of them were from the south of the country. There were also some from the North and East. Most of the Sinhalese who attended were mourning their own loved ones who had gone missing. This was not only during the war with the LTTE. Two decades before the war with the LTTE finally ended, there was the JVP insurrection that cost the lives of thousands of Sinhalese, many of whom went missing. Their families mourn them and look for them to this day.

Grief will always be at hand for those who have lost their loved ones and have not found out what happened to them. There is no repressive power that can stop people from missing their loved ones and coming out to remember them. Therefore even governmental efforts taken to deny the past, or to block investigations into them, are bound to fail. The longing of people to find out what happened to their loved ones will always be greater, and more enduring, than the desire of the government to suppress the truth. This is why in countries such as Argentina and Bangladesh, even forty years after the events took place, wrong doers who denied them have been brought before justice.

Recently I attended a conference on establishing an International Day for Orphans. Some of the persons who spoke had lost their family members in the Korean War that took place in the early 1950s. They had been orphaned by war. An elderly professor of linguistics was translating from the Korean language to English at the conference. When one of the participants spoke about how his father had gone missing during the Korean war, the professor who was translating also broke into tears. It turned out that he too had lost his father in the same way as he too had gone missing in the war. These events had taken place more than 60 years ago, and yet the memories were alive and painful. The memory of those we love never dies.

The strongest and most sustainable of human love is that of family members for one another. These family ties are not only limited to the nuclear family especially in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Korea. They include also the extended family and the larger neighbourhood community. If any government or organization believes it can suppress the memories of those who have lost their loved ones and induce forgetfulness through material inducements, they are making a mistake. The desperate need of family members to find their lost ones will spur them to take the biggest of risks and continue with the search at the greatest of costs.

Instead of seeking to heal these painful memories, Sri Lanka has been trying to deal with the past by celebrating war victory on the one hand, and denying the civilian casualty toll on the other. The government has also not been cooperative with regard to demands for independent investigations into the past. The government has denied permission to UN investigators to enter the country. The government has recently also imposed travel restrictions on foreign citizens entering the North, where the last battles of the war were fought, and where there will be the greatest number of families who have lost their loved ones.

The government has been and continues to be hostile to the UN investigation into human rights violations that took place in the last phase of the war. It describes this as politically motivated to weaken the sovereignty of the country. The government has also been able to create opposition to the investigation in most of the Sri Lankan people by claiming that this is a plot against the country’s unity and intended to strengthen the LTTE. As a result the general population is oriented to seeing any civil society activism in relation to the fate of those who went missing during the war as being against the national interest.

But even if the government can keep the international investigators at bay, and continue to win elections, it will not be able to prevail over its own people who have lost their loved ones. Therefore it will be more constructive of the government to take steps to heal those memories. The government can utilize the services of its own institutions for this task. One of these institutions is that of the Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons. The government needs to make this commission more acceptable to the victims, whose grievances it is meant to address. Many months ago South Africa made an offer to assist in post-war healing and reconciliation after the government invited them to study our post-war problems and the government appeared to accept it. Due to the breakdown of trust an external facilitator will be necessary.