17 January, 2021

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Moving Towards A Necessary Balance 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

As the new year dawns the government appears to be moving in the direction of more inclusivity in both domestic and foreign policy. The most contentious domestic political issue over the past nine months, and growing in intensity to include public demonstrations, has been that of the disposal of bodies of persons who succumb to the coronavirus. The Sri Lankan claim to be exceptional in the world in respect of the practice of enforced cremation has been met with the opposition and increasingly public agitation of the Muslim community to whom burial is a matter of religious faith and is a human right guaranteed under the constitution and international law. Until recently the experts in the medical and scientific field consulted by the government and elevated to government committees were adamant in taking the position that burials should not be permitted on safety grounds.

The willingness of the government to go ahead for over nine months with a policy that has been challenged both on scientific and religious grounds both locally and internationally needs to be understood. The Muslim countries worldwide have joined hands to ask the Sri Lankan government to respect the right to burial. However, the proponents of cremation, both amongst the scientific community and general public, have a worldview that is centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences. They see the need to assert their dominance or risk losing ground as occurred in the distant past. When these primordial fears are set in opposition to those of the ethnic and religious minorities who are vested with equal citizenship rights, and in addition are contrary to international practices, the outcome is bound to be contested, divisive and harmful to the country as a whole.

A more recently appointed expert committee appointed by the government on the issue of the disposal of bodies of Covid infected persons has adopted a more pluralist perspective and recommended both cremation and burial as options. This will provide the government with a science-based rationale to change the present policy that has divided the country. It will be to the credit of the government that even as it moves towards accommodation within the country, it is moved to accommodation in the foreign policy sphere as well. The government’s ability to eschew polarization in foreign policy can be seen in its ability to tide over the foreign exchange crisis by negotiating to raise USD 3.5 billion in currency swaps from China and India who are rivals on the international front as well as in relation to Sri Lanka where they have both being vying to take the first place. In recent years the Chinese presence has increased significantly in terms of economic enterprises operating within the country including the country’s ports.

Indian Support 

With Sri Lanka being just 30 kilometers away from India and having overlapping territorial seas that can harbor security threats to itself, it can be expected that India would have concerns about Sri Lanka’s growing closeness and dependence on China for both economic and political sustenance. The Sri Lankan government would have no interest in taking sides in the rivalries of China and India and making itself part of a big power struggle by siding with one over the other. The decision to lease out the Eastern terminal of Colombo port to an Indian owned company which is in partnership with the Japanese government can assuage Indian concerns regarding China’s potential security threat to itself by giving them also a similar presence in the country’s ports. This is a positive action as India is not only physically close to Sri Lanka, but is also culturally close, which makes it the closest to Sri Lanka in more ways than one.

For the past three decades since the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, India has sought to be a benefactor to Sri Lanka offering more and asking for less. The cynical actions of the Indian government in the early to mid-1980s, when it decided to train and arm the Tamil militancy that pushed the country into protracted ethnic war will always be remembered in Sri Lanka. However, the Indian efforts to make amends needs to be appreciated. During the final decade of the war, India gave its military and diplomatic support to overcome the LTTE threat. The amends that India has made comes in three important ways. The first is economic, in which India has emerged to be among the top three aid donors along with China and Japan. Indian economic support is wide ranging including the construction of railways, providing housing for war victims, ambulances countrywide and educational scholarships. India has also offered to sign a free trade agreement which Sri Lanka has not been prepared to accept so far due to fear of being overwhelmed by much bigger and wealthy Indian economic enterprises.

The second area of India’s support has come in the form of political support in international forums, particularly those in which Sri Lanka is politically vulnerable due to its blemished human rights record due to wars and authoritarian rule when it was capable of doing much better. In the votes taken at the UN Human Rights Council, India invariably voted along with Sri Lanka in opposing international sanctions of any sort being imposed on Sri Lanka. Only once did it abstain from voting for either side in 2014. India’s support has been particularly helpful to Sri Lanka as it provides leadership to other developing countries which tend to look to India for guidance. The forthcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva in March will be particularly important as the issue of the UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 will be coming up, and the present Sri Lankan government’s unilateral withdrawal from commitments made by the previous government will be taken up.

Provincial Councils 

The third area of Indian support to Sri Lanka has been in regard to supporting a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the country that has dogged it since the time of Independence and which successive government leaders have tried to bring to a conclusion. The current framework of devolution of power which is suited for ethnically and regionally diverse countries such as Sri Lanka is an outcome of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987. It induced the Sri Lankan government to amend the constitution through the 13th Amendment to establish provincial councils. This was a challenge that previous Sri Lankan leaders starting from S W R D Bandaranaike in 1957 to Dudley Senanayake in 1965 had attempted to do but failed. The early models of devolution of power, which those earlier generations of leaders proposed, would have given the ethnic minorities the power of limited self-government in the areas in which they are a majority. They were akin to asymmetrical devolution as they were not meant to be operational outside of the Northern and Eastern provinces.

It was India’s pledge to stop the ongoing war with the LTTE by disarming it that prompted President J R Jayewardene to give the necessary political leadership to ensure that the 13th Amendment was passed into law. This constitutional amendment provided the framework for devolution of power on a uniform basis to the entire country rather than to the North and East alone on the principle of one country, one law, which the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa champions. The provincial council system has been in operation for over three decades. Those who have been a part of the system and been chief ministers and government officials within them have expressed their belief that this system can be improved. The ethnic minorities too support the system of provincial councils but the ethnic majority and nationalist politicians are opposed to it.

The decision of the government to further postpone provincial council elections till the proposed new constitution is formulated is an indication that the present government or some of its leaders may wish to amend the provincial council system or eliminate it entirely. However, there are also other reasons that may have motivated the government to make this decision, including the widening Covid infection and the expense involved in holding the elections which could be used for other urgent purposes. In any event, if the provincial council system is to be modified, abolished or replaced with another system of power sharing, this needs to be done with the concurrence of the ethnic minorities and not be unilaterally imposed on them. At a time when Indian is supportive of Sri Lanka it needs also to be kept in mind that India lost the lives of over one thousand of its soldiers to implement the Indo Lanka Peace Accord, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was the co-architect of the Accord also lost his life as a result. Any change in the system of devolution of power needs to be a considered one.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    Put 13A to a referendum.

    If the final decision is NO to 13A, it goes with all PCs. If YES, they stay.

    Democratic.

    In fact, if Gota puts 13A to a referendum in 2024, the winning momentum (NO to 13A) will propel him to win the 2024 presidential election and 2025 parliamentary election.

  • 2
    3

    Since you are into human right and all, why not try to get back over 5000 ancient manuscripts the British have taken from the island? This includes the original Buddhist cannon. This represents a violation of basic right namely the right to follow ones religion freely.

  • 2
    2

    YOU CAN NOT ERADICATE AND DENY THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF ANY CITIZEN BY ONE COUNTRY -ONE LAW ,
    ON THE CONTARY, IT MUST BE TO PROTECT THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF EACH CITIZEN.
    =================

    Why is this bloke
    Some Dan Prassad given somuch power ? How come he is above the law ? How come he can dictate to The Government ?
    I did some basic search on the bloke , what I found not only surprised me , it also confused me.
    He is by profession a Socerer,
    I honour , hold in high
    Esteem the enlighten one , The Noble Buddha , his Dhamma and the Sangha, only because it is the only religion which the foundation is laid on rationalism,logic and encourages independent reasoning and zero violence and freedom to all beings from subjugating .
    So how come a person like Dan Prasad whose ideology is
    totally opposite and contradicting the very teaching, Which our late Most Ven.Soma Thero used to advice buddhists to avoid ,
    Is given free hand and front stage .?
    I vehemently object people like Dan Prasad and Abdul Razik portrating themselves
    As custodians of Buddhism & Islam and dictating to the government.

    • 2
      1

      Same reason Bathurdeen and Hakeem have too much power.

  • 2
    1

    Of course in any essay, one conveys one’s point of view, sometimes spin doctored.
    But discussion would follow about whether it is objective when in the public domain.
    So in saying “The proponents of cremation, both amongst the scientific community and general public, have a worldview that is centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences” – is it subjective and not objective to ascribe the “Reason” as “centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences”.
    Similarly “When THESE PRIMORDIAL FEARS are set “in opposition” to those of the ethnic and religious minorities who are vested with equal citizenship rights” is there a contradiction because the primordial fear is DEATH and, just may be, that those “in opposition” are fearful of that, and not “centered around their own ethnic identity and its historical experiences”.
    “A more recently appointed expert committee appointed by the government on the issue of the disposal of bodies of Covid infected persons has adopted a more pluralist perspective and recommended both cremation and burial as options.”
    But it is these same experts who earlier gave a contrary view….? So experts view only acceptable when it suits ?
    ..contd.

  • 2
    1

    …contd.
    While I do not subscribe to EITHER VIEW whether ‘Bury or Cremate’ (having not arrived at that unfortunate “deadline” as yet with Covid), I leave it to the medical experts to decide on that.
    Unfortunately, most comments are very profuse on any article, (sometimes prolix, others insistent on personal view as only acceptable), but they seem to be an insistence on others accepting your own hackneyed point of view, and that very forcefully, or you get much flak.
    May I earnestly request for “temperance” (again not the usual meaning associated with alcohol, but more general “moderation in action, thought, or feeling : restraint of passion”) this New Year.
    Let our comments be new and even-tempered and convey some value to the sum total of knowledge of all of us. Is that too much to ask.?

  • 4
    0

    Except for the politically and economically illiterate in Sri Lanka, it is generally understood that the political structures at perhaps all levels are inefficient, with endemic corruption and nepotism that have spanned several decades in their progression. Examples have been evident quite regularly and across political parties and allegiances. In that context, if the welfare of the public is genuinely and sincerely sought above cozying up to powerful neighbours or trading partners or fulfilling personal agendas or rewarding supporters for their efforts, then it would seem that electing more politicians at provincial level will merely add to state expenses and increase opportunities for corruption rather than do anything to “develop” the blighted country.

  • 3
    2

    Jegan
    Are you saying that Mahinda Family is now trying to go against the Buddhist Fundamentalists extremism or terrorism?

  • 2
    0

    Dear Jehan
    It is an interesting proposition or even may be a supposition. Be that may, the real question is whether the powers be, will alter their track, is the quagmire for all of us.
    The economic state of affairs of the country has been going from bad to worst. Beyond redemption one would surmise. There is no sign of this improving at all. No foreign or for that matter local investors have any confidence. The debt burden of Sri Lanka is horrendous and the unemployment is also a major issue.
    What is strategy if there is one, to come out of this rut it is in. They need to go back to drawing board to devise a road map

  • 1
    2

    The 13 th amendment and Provincial Council Act were brought in by J.R. with a view to decentralize the administration in all 9 provinces. Under this, most of the funds were distributed to 7 Sinhala majority provinces than to North and East provinces. As such, the most benefits were achieved in all 7 provinces whilst the other two were undeveloped due to prolonging war. Even after end of the war, these two provinces are still being ill -treated by the Central Gov’t by the appointment of Governors loyal to the parties in power and they are still lacking behind.

    • 2
      1

      Ponna Lanka,
      Typical Tamil bullshiter! Your racist Vellala politicians and LTTE Tamil terrorist barbarians who did the dong key work for those politicians are responsible for ruing North and East. Sinhala tax payers had to waste their money to rebuild North and East after LTTE was defeated. Tamil Diaspora that spent billions of Dollars to arm LTTE did not spend a single Penny to develop North and East.
      The Government gave money to all the PCs but your Chief Minister returned that money to the Treasury without using for improving the livelihood of people. Instead of improving the livelihood of people your Malabar Vellala Demalu oppress and discriminate their fellow Tamils who belong to low castes (Dalit). According to reports coming from the North, discrimination against low caste Tamils has increased after LTTE failed to achieve the aspiration of Vellala politicians to create their dreamland; Tamil Eelam

  • 1
    1

    JP,
    Why should the Government concur with Tamils who did ethnic cleansing of North by chasing away Sinhalayo and Muslims and created a mono-ethnic ghetto? With full devolution of power Vigneshwaran might say no Sinhalayo are welcomed in the North while Tamils who are occupying Sinhala land in the North expand their colonization scheme to the South.

    In this country minorities can talk about their rights but if Sinhalayo who are the Native people talk about their rights they are branded as ‘Racists’, Sinhala Supremacists’.
    If Sinhalayo feel that PCs imposed by a foreign country to please racist separatist Malabar Vellala Tamil politicians are no use they have the right to tell the Government to get rid of that. After all it is their tax money that is used to maintain these dong key politicians in PCs.

    India did not help Sri Lanka to get rid of LTTE because India’s love for Sri Lanka. India felt that LTTE could be a threat to India’s security. Sinhala boys and girls in the Armed Forces fought India’s war against LTTE.

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