A recent silent protest in front of the president’s office in Colombo was part of an effort to use the new Right to Information law to get the facts on missing persons, voter identification, land rights and other issues. A youth network called AFRIEL facilitated the demonstration and has assisted people in developing more than 1,000 applications under the law.
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — The crowd approached the Presidential Secretariat office in Colombo in silence. Some held hands, others hoisted homemade posters. They came to ask the President Maithripala Sirisena about the government’s plans to resettle those living in internal displacement camps in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, where a 26-year civil war ended in 2009.
And they came ready to use a new mechanism to gather information in their bid for land rights: Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) law. They brought 73 separate requests.
The Feb. 28 silent protest was part of a daylong trip to Sri Lanka’s capital, where participants sent RTI requests regarding resettlement to the Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs and separate requests to the Ministry of Lands concerning land acquired by the military during the war.
The law, which Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy considers among the strongest legal frameworks for RTI in the world, took effect Feb. 3. Under the law and regulations, the government must respond to requests within 14 days, or, if an extension is needed, within 35 days.
“The RTI law is a tool that can help those of us who lived through the war to understand what exactly happened,” says Sivarasa Pratheep, 28, a member of the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), a youth network based in the northern city of Vavuniya that facilitated the protest.
“There is very little correct, accurate information. Getting this information will help us imagine correctly what happened, based on facts,” he says.
Since implementation of the RTI law, Pratheep and his colleagues at AFRIEL have assisted in developing more than 1,000 applications. Over 700 of these applications have been filed in various government offices across the Northern Province, he says.
The majority of these RTI applications deal with three issues: return of private land acquired by the military during the war and government plans to resettle people living in internally displaced camps, information on disappeared and missing persons and the lack of identification documents.
“The RTI law is a great fortune we have received, an opportunity, and we must use it well and to the maximum,” says Ravindra De Silva, a team member and one of the founders of AFRIEL.
Pratheep and De Silva individually have also filed RTI applications to help AFRIEL identify and analyze social issues.
Ravindra De Silva (left) has filed many RTI applications concerning military land acquisition and missing persons. Sivarasa Pratheep has filed applications regarding government-issued identification documents. As team members with the Association for Friendship and Love, they’ve also helped to develop more than 1,000 other RTI requests. Manori Wijesekera, GPJ Sri Lanka
Pratheep says he has filed 34 RTI applications requesting information on government-issued identification documents at divisional secretariat offices in each of the Northern Province’s five districts.
De Silva says that many people in the North do not have identification documents, but the total number is not known anywhere.
“What if we find that there are about 100,000 people in the North who are eligible to vote, but without the documents they need to register to vote?” De Silva asks. “How powerful would that information be to bring about change?”
De Silva says he has filed two RTI requests at each of the Northern Province’s 34 divisional secretariat offices as well. One requests details on military land acquisition. The other requests the list of missing persons in each area.
“Many families of missing persons have not collected documents to build up a case for their search,” De Silva says. “If an investigation is launched, they will go with the photo of the missing person, but they have nothing else.”
With information acquired through the RTI process, De Silva plans to help dozens of families begin compiling information and evidence on their missing relatives.
“The RTI law is a tool that can help those of us who lived through the war to understand what exactly happened.” Sivarasa Pratheep, 28, a member of the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), a youth network based in the northern city of Vavuniya that facilitated the protest
De Silva says the RTI applications that he and Pratheep have filed only request general information. They want to help others file their own more specific RTI applications.
“What we want is for these villagers to forge the same kind of trust they have with us, the same kind of open communication, the same understanding that we are working together — we want them to build it with government agencies also,” De Silva says. “If they can do it with us, why can’t they do it directly with the government agencies? We want them to believe they can!”
De Silva says people already are becoming more confident in requesting information from the government.
“When someone who has heard excuses for more than 20 years hears a government officer tell them, ‘I will send you this feedback within 14 days,’ that is a tremendous transformation,” De Silva says. “People can feel this change, they now experience it for themselves.”
Pratheep and De Silva say the RTI Act is crucial in helping citizens gain information necessary for postwar reconciliation.
“We can use the RTI in different ways,” he says. “One way is to bring system changes to the government. Another is to create a social movement and to also change the mind-set of society. All of these become a good foundation toward reconciliation, because a trust is built up between citizens and the government.”
Manori Wijesekera, GPJ, translated an interview from Sinhala.
Ravindra De Silva translated Sivarasa Pratheep’s interview from Tamil.