Distrust as Sri Lanka sets up body to probe missing people

Office of Missing Persons established to investigate disappearances of thousands of people during country’s civil war.

Sri Lanka‘s government has set up an independent body to probe the disappearances of thousands of people during and after the country’s bloody civil war.

The newly-created Office of Missing Persons (OMP) launched a series of public meetings on Saturday, ahead of the ninth anniversary marking the end of the 26-year conflict on May 18. 

The OMP is the first of four mechanisms which Sri Lanka promised the United Nations Human Rights Council it would set up in its effort to grant justice to the victims.

After two years in the making, the body’s members were appointed in February this year.  

OMP Chairman Saliya Pieris acknowledged that families are finding it hard to trust the body, but insisted that the organisation has more powers than previous commissions.


“It is an institution set up by the state, but which is able to act independently and able to investigate and to trace people who have been missing or disappeared and their circumstances, whoever the perpetrator is,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Angry and frustrated’

In 1983, Sri Lanka became embroiled in a struggle between the Sinhalese majority ethnic group and the minority Tamils, partly a arising from the country’s colonial legacy.

The conflict claimed about 100,000 lives, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left indelible scars on the nation.

Families of those disappeared and activists in the northern island of Mannar were invited on Saturday by the OMP to share their thoughts and expectations.

But many are sceptical that the new body will help them find their missing relatives.

Our details are all registered, but even four presidential commissions didn't give us answers

by Manuel Uthayahchandra, mother of missing

Manuel Uthayahchandra told Al Jazeera that her son Anton was abducted 10 years ago.

After years of trying to find him, she is mentally and physically exhausted, Uthayahchandra said. 

“Our details are all registered but even four presidential commissions didn’t give us answers,” Uthayachandra explained.

“Now we don’t know why they’re bringing this OMP. We have no trust in it.”

Some said that they refrained from pursuing their case due to fear of authorities, while others accused the military for being responsible for the disappearances. 

“Mannar Island was under military control, we were under their control so our children have to have been taken by the military,” Uthayahchandra said at the meeting.

“So, you must ask the government if its true or false that the military took them.” 

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Mannar, said that almost 10 years after the end of the war,  families are “angry and frustrated.”

“Many have run out of energy and resources to keep looking for their loved ones, but are still hoping for answers, answers they hope the OMP can help them find.”