By Rajan Philips –
A lot more can be added to the two stories in the title as stories making news last week in Sri Lanka and around the world. The 2021 International Women’s Day (IWD) arrived on Monday, March 8. Even as Monday was dawning in much of the eastern hemisphere, Oprah Winfrey was upstaging The Crown while it was still Sunday evening in west coast Los Angeles. Netflix, the streaming giant and the producer so far of four seasons of the popular royal series – The Crown, could not have imagined what Ms. Winfrey pulled out of her “carrier bag” as a real-life story starring a real-life and eloquent prince (Harry) and his biracial and telegenic American wife, Megan Markle. Their dramatic recounting of the intersections of race, gender, royalty, and the English tabloids presaged the 2021 Women’s Day.
Hours later, female farmers from Punjab and Haryana stormed the ramparts of Delhi, continuing the months-long farmers’ siege on the Modi government and its agricultural laws. Black Sunday protests had already started in Sri Lanka over government’s pussyfooting around the 2019 Easter Sunday tragedies and the masterminds behind them. Later in the week Sri Lanka’s heavy-footed parliament began debating the Presidential Commission report on Easter Sunday, with the SJB and the TNA supporting Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s call for international investigation of Easter Sunday bombings.
On Tuesday, March 9, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a non-governmental organization in Washington, released a report prepared by 50 global experts in international law, genocide, and the China region, which claims that the Chinese government “bears state responsibility for an ongoing genocide against the Uyghur in breach of the (UN) Genocide Convention.” It is apparently the first time a non-governmental organization has undertaken an independent legal analysis of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pre-emptively dismissed the report and said that allegations of a genocide in Xinjiang “couldn’t be more preposterous.”
However, the matter was reportedly raised by President Joe Biden at his virtual summit meeting, on Friday, March 12, with the other three leaders of the four Quad countries: Prime Ministers Narendra Modi (India), Scott Morrison (Australia), and Yoshihide Suga (Japan). Of the four Quad leaders, Prime Minister Modi is unlikely to be critical of China on the Uyghur question given his own government’s treatment of Indian Muslims.
Thursday, March 11, was the first anniversary of Covid-19 being declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. It has been quite a year for everyone born during the last 100 years after the Spanish flu had come and gone. The global toll of Covid-19 is astounding: nearly 120 million infections and close to three million deaths. The impact on women has been patriarchally disproportionate. The global vaccine rollout is anything but proportionate. The UN theme for the 2021 Women’s Day could not have been more fitting: “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
To mark the occasion, if not the theme, the world media carried the picture of Sister Ann Rose falling to her knees, pleading with Myanmar soldiers to shoot her and spare the children. The military junta is struggling to contain the escalating civilian protests against the suspension of democracy in Myanmar, even as the UN Security Council is running out of non-veto votes to roll back the junta’s auto-coup to shut down parliament and keep itself in power.
The Pope and the Cardinal
The start of the crowded week also saw Pope Francis making his first international trip after Covid-19. Following his October encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” the Pope visited Iraq over four days travelling from modern Baghdad, to historic places in the old Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilization: the ancient City of Ur where Abraham was born, Mosul on the west bank of Tigris, and Ninevah Plain on the east bank with its Christian towns. There have been mixed reactions to the Papal visit during the pandemic. But as Moises Saman told the National Geographic, Pope Francis brought a “spark of hope and validation” to a “country and its people … deeply scarred by conflict. … it felt like a turning point, for people of all faiths, to have a person of his stature come to Iraq—despite the pandemic, despite security concerns, despite all these obstacles.” The Pope met with the 90 year old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf and called for an end to violence and extremism and for unity among the Muslims and the dwindling number of Christians in Iraq.
In Sri Lanka, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith invoked the Pope’s visit to Iraq and called it as an inspiration for unity and peace among peoples of all religions in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. To his credit, the Cardinal is calling for justice without alienating the Muslims. His disenchantment is with the government for its half-hearted approach to act on the recommendations of the Presidential Commission. The approach is also censorial as the Attorney General is denied access to the full report apparently for security reasons.
We learn from news reports that the Attorney General has met with the Cardinal, but we have not seen any report about his meetings with the Minister of Justice or any Minister of consequence. The breaking news is that the government has finally decided to turn over the entire COI report to the Attorney General. Reversals are becoming habitual for this government and there are calls for the whole to be made public. What is there to hide?
And the Cardinal might be the government’s lesser worry now, with National Freedom Front (NFF) leader and Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa stirring the pot again by alleging that there are “clandestine links between a section of the government and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, allegedly involved with those responsible for 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.” This is the lead story in The Island on Friday (March 12), which goes on to say that SLPP parliamentarians are “furious” with Mr. Weerawansa’s latest outburst and that they think he has “stabbed the government in the back.”
Wimal Weerawansa has been a leading champion of ‘Saubhagya Dakma’. In August 2020, he was spearheading coordinated plans for reviving national industries to achieve the President’s saubhagya objectives. Now he is turning sour on the pohottuwa presidency in the name of defending the President. His latest outburst is less remarkable for the accusation it carries and more significant for the reaction it has provoked among SLPPers. And those supporting the government from outside are becoming openly disenchanted.
The term Saubhagya is gradually becoming a term of derision and ridicule just as the term Yahapalanaya before it. There is also a curious difference from the circus of the yahapalanaya government. The chief clown then was also the Head of State, given to periodical outbursts against his Prime Minister in public. Nothing powerful or politically purposeful went on between the two men (Sirisena and Wickremesinghe) in private. Now the carping clowns are everywhere in government, but the Head of State has gone quiet in Colombo.
The current President keeps his counsel for sharing only with captive audiences in the villages. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is becoming the nation’s Reader in Chief, touring villages and reading selected passages from a Presidential Commission report. An apparent breather for the President and ancillary benefit to the country from the 20th Amendment. But others in the government might be breathless with anxiety about the upcoming UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka. There would be no need to hold anyone’s breath if the government were to heed Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s advice and clean up the country’s criminal justice system, without outside assistance if possible, and with it if necessary.