30 July, 2021

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Bipartisan Approach Can Bring Closure To Geneva

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

One of the issues that has created internal division in the country is the cremation of those who have succumbed to the Covid virus. This policy of enforced cremations has been most opposed by the Muslim community for whom burial of the dead is a part of their faith. It has also brought international disapproval to the country. The UN Human Rights Commissioner’s January report on Sri Lanka states that “The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted on religious freedom and exacerbated the prevailing marginalisation and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community. The High Commissioner is concerned that the Government’s decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by COVID-19 has prevented Muslims from practicing their own burial religious rites, and has disproportionately affected religious minorities and exacerbated distress and tensions.”

The shift away from international practices with regard to the burial of Covid victims was initially justified on the basis of science. During the early part of the pandemic when less was known about the disease, and more stringent methods were adopted to halt its spread, such as the two month long 24 hour curfew practiced in Sri Lanka, there was a real fear that the coronavirus could be spread through dead bodies and water. However, when the practice of burying those who died of Covid internationally began to be better known and scientists worldwide, and in Sri Lanka, began to downplay the significance of water transmission of the virus, Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to change its policy began to take on another dimension.

Among those who most strongly opposed the burial of Covid victims have been nationalist ideologues and religious clerics with a limited knowledge of science. Many of them placed their faith in indigenous cultural practices of producing antidotes to the virus that had no basis in science. These included measures such as putting pots of water which had been chanted over into rivers and a concoction of honey and herbs as being efficacious in protecting against infection. There have been some amongst the scientific community itself who have identified with these positions on the grounds of belief in the efficacy of indigenous knowledge. The opposition to burial also took on an anti-Muslim sentiment that had escalated following the Easter bombings of April 2019.

Opposition Support 

Over the past ten months the government has come under pressure from a variety of sources to change its policy with regard to enforced cremation on both political and humanitarian grounds, but to no avail. The main source of pressure has been the Muslim community within the country and their political representatives. They have been supported by sections of the Christian community to whom burial is the traditional way of farewell to the dead. The human rights organisations in the country and internationally also have made numerous appeals including a campaign of tying white ribbons on burial grounds. A further source of pressure has been the international community with governments of Muslim countries making their own representations to the government.

However, the ramping up of local and international pressure only led the government to harden its stance. It appears that a strategy of the government when it is under pressure is to rally its nationalist voter base. The election winning platform of the government was the need to uphold national sovereignty and not to yield to either international pressure or to the ethnic and religious minorities. The electoral rejection of the leaders of the previous government who were seen as appeasing both the international community and the minorities within the country has been a lesson that has made inroads into the thinking of the main opposition parties who have been cautious in the positions they take on controversial issues. However, when Sajith Premadasa, the main Opposition leader, led a protest against enforced cremations which was also attended by civil society groups, the prospects of a bipartisan approach to resolving the problem became possible.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration in parliament last week that burials would be permitted even in the case of Covid victims was welcomed both locally and internationally and has not been politicized by the opposition parties. Ironically, the prime minister’s statement has been contested within the government and not been immediately operationalized. A ruling party parliamentarian had the audacity to say that the prime minister was referring to burials in general and not to Covid burials in particular. The Minister of Health has announced that the matter still needs to be assessed by a committee of experts prior to a final decision being taken. The problem is that different committees of experts have been coming to different conclusions depending on the degree of nationalism they espouse.

International Support 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have informed ambassadors of Western countries who met him that the political decision regarding Covid burials had been taken and what remains is to implement the decision through the Health Ministry. The president is trying to find his way amongst contending powerful forces. The fact that the mainstream opposition parties are also supportive of following the WHO guidelines with regard to the option of burials would be reassuring to the government that this matter would not be politicized to its disadvantage. The problem that the government faces would be confined to an internal one which can more easily be resolved as it is in the self-interest of government members to come to a unified position on this issues.

The manner in which the Covid burial issue is being addressed suggests the way forward with regard to the issue of the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of a very strong report b the UN Human Rights Commissioner which recommends that a variety of punitive sanctions be utilized against the government leaders and those accused of human rights violations. It warns of the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws. The report also has several recommendations to the Sri Lankan government. Addressing the issue of the UN report and the recommendations it makes needs to be seen as a national issue in which the government and opposition work together without politicizing the issue for their own partisan advantage.

The issues being canvassed in Geneva are primarily about matters that concern the people of Sri Lanka. The recent march by Tamil and Muslim political parties and civil society groups from east to north highlighted issues such as the takeover of land, settling of Sinhalese and construction of Buddhist temples, the neglect of families of the missing, stopping memorials to the dead, and problems faced by cattle farmers. These are matters that are in the interests of all Sri Lankans to peacefully resolve regardless of their communities and political affiliations. Just as the opposition leadership has given its support to the practice of WHO guidelines for the disposal of Covid bodies it needs to give its support to the resolution of these issues of the past and the present. If the government and opposition leaderships are united in their resolve to address the grievances of the ethnic and religious minorities we can be assured that the international community will seek to support Sri Lanka rather than to engage in punitive measures.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    2

    The Sinhalese dominated racist Sri Lankan state and its rulers since independence have advanced with their goal for seven decades in the genocide of Tamils of the North-East and discrimination of all sorts against Tamils and Muslims.

    Recent Sri Lankan racist state actions are a continuation of the goal to subjugate the so called minorities and reduce their population and their territories.

    The grievances of Tamils and Muslims that Jehan cites just didn’t pop up suddenly.

    Does anybody think the Sinhalese leaders and their state will backtrack from their goals? If the Sun rises in the West they might consider doing it!

    • 3
      1

      How can government and opposition unite to settle grievances of Tamils, when they are united in denying sharing of land and power with Tamils in a genuine manner and refusing to bring war criminals who committed atrocities on Tamils to justice.

      • 0
        0

        Before trying to achieve consensus with the opposition, the government must make up its mind on its own policy. From MCC to East Terminal and Muslim burial, it says one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon. It is clear now that it wasn’t Gota that won the war. He’s just the coward that came back to take SF’s credit.
        If Gota ran the war, VP would be in Temple Trees today.

  • 3
    3

    ‘Bipartisan Approach Can Bring Closure To Geneva’
    .
    There are absolutely no circumstances under which the Tamil diaspora will accept closure. Having failed at everything since independence, this is the beggar’s wound that must be maintained at all costs. Resolution will leave them with nothing to complain about.

    • 3
      2

      Svenson

      “Resolution will leave them with nothing to complain about.”

      Well said.
      However one must accept the Sinhala/Buddhist racists are blessed with creativity that they come up with millions of reasons to pick fight with non Sinhala/Buddhists, Sinhalese and Buddhists.

      Ban on killing Cattle and selling beef
      Janasa
      One Country one law.
      Muslim surgeon steralised

    • 2
      2

      Svenson

      “Resolution will leave them with nothing to complain about.”

      Well said.
      However one must accept the Sinhala/Buddhist racists are blessed with creativity that they come up with millions of reasons to pick fight with non Sinhala/Buddhists, Sinhalese and Buddhists.

      Ban on killing Cattle and selling beef
      Janasa
      One Country one law.
      Muslim surgeon steralised 4,000 Sinhala women
      Fake news about sterilization pills campaign against Muslims
      Every few months or so armed forces find LTTE arms through out the country
      Shavendra finds reasons to believe Kallathonies are coming to this island from South India as asylum seekers.
      Kamal finds himself the Hecules fighting the Goliath.
      Dumb ass governor distributing grazing lands to people who have no connection to the land
      Protest and violent threat against Rohingya refugees in 2017.
      Singha Le
      Land Grabbing by Saffron brigade, Archaeological department, ….
      Strong President seem dithering, unable to make any decisions (ECT)
      Dumb ass war criminals are expected to run A to Z.
      Even 10 years after the end of war dumb asses cannot account for the disappeared.

      ..

      Now Dumb Asses are planning to take over the Hindian funded Jaffna Cultural Centre .

      Kurunthur Hill temple, ….
      Nilavari
      Murderers are release with absolving all charges and allowed to sit in the parliament.,

  • 6
    3

    Will the Muslims organize a protest in Colombo when Pakistan PM come to Sri Lanka? Pakistan PM is not coming here to give a voice to demand the government of Muslim rights of burial or the violence against Muslims since the end of war. He is in a mission to support Rajapakse regime, not to support Sri Lanka. He is here to give his loyalty to China and anti_India.

  • 3
    1

    Why should the opposition help the Govt? Is it because they discussed 20A prior to presenting in the Parliament or discussed before withdrawing from joint resolution presented by the opposition when they were with UNP? It was also the present Govt that opposed implementation of the joint resolution when they were in the opposition. Govt did not discuss any of these major issues with the opposition. Now the Govt is begging opposition to support in order that the noose is around their neck? In my opinion the opposition should wait in the side lines until the Govt shows its true commitment to implement the proposals in the joint resolution that the Govt withdrew.

    I think the resolution that is being drafted is a fair one. SL Govt should have an independent public inquiry in front of a bench comprising of judges who are truly independent and composed of an ethnic mix that represents the ethnic mix of the country. Foreign observers can be invited as representatives of UN, there is nothing wrong as long as they do not sit in judgement.

    The independent public inquiry should also investigate the LTTE leftovers.

  • 4
    2

    “Just as the opposition leadership has given its support to the practice of WHO guidelines for the disposal of Covid bodies…”

    GOSL should do whatever it feels best in regards to bodies, including cremation. The main issue is not religion, but protecting the health of the citizens. WHO is not a reputable organization. The problem is that their second biggest donor is China. When COVID-19 began, it took WHO many months to declare global pandemic status. Pandemic status requires governments to take decisive measures such as airport restrictions and possible lockdowns. Because of this failure by WHO, the virus spread quickly. WHO was under pressure from China. Just recently, WHO sent a delegation to China, but were unable to pinpoint Wuhan as the origin of the virus. Any fool knows the virus came from China, but WHO will not acknowledge this.

    • 3
      1

      Lester

      “Any fool knows the virus came from China, but WHO will not acknowledge this.”

      Forget WHO.
      Can you convince our own in house China pundit SJ?

      • 0
        0

        Native,
        “The problem is that their second biggest donor is China. “
        Lester the pundit is looking up and spitting. He doesn’t know who Sri Lanka’s biggest donor is.

  • 1
    0

    To muster the support of the “Opposition” to seek a “Bipartisan” approach to the UNHRC report, the Government of GR must formulate a list of “Promises” to be offered as a “Carrot”. That was well demonstrated and huge success was achieved, when the “Muslim” MPs were “Promised” that “Burial Rights” would be granted if they “Voted” in favor to form the “2/3rd” majority in Parliament. It is no difficult task with the present “Opposition” led by Mr. Sajith Premadasa. For example, the President can have a “One-to-One” meeting with Sajith and “Promise” that the Government will not “Open” an inquiry into the “Misuse” and “Loss (running to millions) of funds from the “Cultural Fund” during his tenure of office as a Minister of Yahapalanaya. The President can ask the PM, how he “Arranged” not to “Investigate” the “Fake Currency” brought to a Bank by Sajith’s sister for deposit. There are many “Avenues” available with Sajith P led SJB and why not open those “Routes” to face UNHRC threats?

  • 1
    3

    Dear Jehan Thank you.

    The way forward for a Nation – Electric Cremation/Retort irrespective of the Covid issues.

    Our island is a small place and the population is exploding. We need to have a scientific plan how we going to tackle this from now onwards?

    We have to invest in cultural/ceremonial spaces for electric cremation (including access to rural areas) where all irrespective of the divide can come to pay respect to their loved ones.

    We should learn not to weaponise all the future changes to come where we all having to make changes to our old ways of doing things…..and adopt many new ideas as we have done with all else in our life be it ethical/religious etc but found ways to get by?

    This is not a religious bias or bigotry on my part but the word science and futuristic is written all over this ban indirectly perhaps for a very different environmental reasons…….carbon footprint/land management/fire wood management/even the coffins are made out of expensive woods etc…therefore is a multi religious discussion…where opportunity has presented itself. This is a good test for SL for all religions to come to some understanding.

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