By Mohamed Harees –
“Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–2008
Anderson’s tale about Emperors’ new clothes involves a vain king who was preoccupied with his appearance and his wardrobe. A pair of swindlers took advantage of this by pretending to be able to weave the finest cloth, which couldn’t be seen by people who were either unfit for office or were particularly stupid. The king decided to have a suit of clothes made from the fabric in order to test which of his courtiers was unfit for office. As he didn’t want to appear stupid or unfit for rule himself, he pretended to be able to see the new clothes, as did all of his courtiers. He paraded the ‘new clothes’ through the streets and the onlookers, also not wishing to appear stupid, all admired them. A small child, who didn’t understand the apparent necessity for pretence, piped up ‘But he has nothing on!’. The bubble of pretence burst and soon all the onlookers were repeating what the child had said, whilst the king continued the procession, attempting to maintain his dignity by pretending that nothing had happened. Emperor’s New Clothes’! – exactly an apt title for the interesting drama, a comedy of sorts being enacted in the Paradise Isle on the theme of the myths on Covid burials! Today, the bubble of pretence of this devious regime has burst, with the racism stench reaching high heavens.
What happened in the Parliament few days ago was frivolous and absurd to say the least, which hit the headlines of most global Media. The world media was agog with the hot news few days ago, about Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa intervening unexpectedly in response to a question in Parliament by MP Marikkar. And saying the magic words, ‘we will allow burials’, particularly to the delight of the Muslim community both within and beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. It was apparently a bolt from the blue. Khan as well as many world leaders and countries began posting congratulatory messages via the Twitter. With his statement coming days ahead of an official visit to Sri Lanka by Pakistani PM Imran Khan, there was wide speculation that that the decision was motivated by the upcoming UNHRC sessions.
However, it transpired that the Sri Lankan government was not quite genuine in redressing the long lost injustice to the Muslims, who were unjustifiably denied their right to afford a dignified send-off to their loved ones. Making it look like Mahinda’s slip of the tongue, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Co. began to play their mind games. State Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle stated in Parliament that PM’s ‘assurance’ will be referred to the pseudo credible expert committee, for an ultimate decision. She also said later that it will be Health Minister who will be able to decide on this issue. PM’s office confirmed that PM did not refer to Covid burials. Adding more humour and absurdity, the SLPP Spokesperson Kokila Gunawardene too reiterated at a Press interview that PM only meant burials in the general sense and did not refer to Covid burials, thereby insulting the intelligence of not just the people of Sri Lanka, but beyond, even the international community as well. the Muslim community felt cheated and deceived. Thus, if deception is an art, then this racist Government is the uncontested Picasso! She instantly became a laughing stock in the social media, which gave rise to humorous memes as well. It is common sense that normal non-covid burials are anyway allowed and MP S.M. Marickkar clearly referred to Covid burials. Thus, PM obviously meant covid burials.
If not a year-long deceit was not enough, Nandasena’s government thus once again thought it fit to tease a community already hurt by the State sanctioned demonization campaign and took their art of deception to a new low level. The emotions and feelings of a community were thereby put through another test, by way of this palpably racist tantrums of the government of ‘His Majesty’ whose wings have been strengthened recently via 20A. In the process, this Emperor’s ‘racist’ clothes were laid bare before the world community, adding more proof about the myth this despotic regime has been weaving around the risk of burials. The world outside this racist circle of governance and its so-called Expert committee (which has lost its credibility in style), thus saw their nakedness.
Even at the risk of repetition of a commonly known truth, it is pertinent to stress that there was no truth or justification both medical or ethical to the government’s forced cremation stance. There never was! Prof Tissa Vitarana clearly stated that the so-called expert Committee which had the likes of Dr Channa Perera and Prof Meththika Vithanage both of whom concocted conspiracy theories on burials, smacked of incompetence. In contrast, the actual expert committee headed by Prof Jeniffer Perera, the College of Community Physicians as well as Sri Lanka Medical Association as well as both local and global experts including Prof Malik Peiris, Dr Rohan Abeysinghe, Dr Paba Palihawadana, Prof Ravindra Fernando in addition to WHO Guidelines clearly debunked the theory about the risk of burials. It was thus clear that the government has been resisting calls to reverse the April 2020 gazette which banned burials, including for Muslims, was for no other reason than unbridled Islamophobia in particular and institutionalized racism in general. All appeals by the UN and all human rights watchdogs have also fallen on deaf ears as well as the practice adopted by over 190 countries. Thus, Sri Lanka become a land like no other, once again for the wrong reasons.
Still, the emotions and feelings of the minorities became playthings to the ruling class, which thrives on a racist diet to politically survive, deemed necessary to divert its attention from its rising unpopularity in facing many crises – economic, debt burden, selling national assets, shrinking space for freedom of expression as well as rule of law and impunity crises. Besides, the political alliances within the ruling part appears to be falling apart too, in addition to reported clashes within the ‘royal family’.
The sad victims of Nandasena’s State sanctioned racism are not just Muslims. Politics over dead has adversely affected other minorities too. While Muslims are unable to bury their dead, Tamils are unable to remember their dead, being branded unpatriotic or even called terrorists if they do so. Both Tamils as a racial minority and Christians as a religious minority are also asking for justice for their dead too. Already Tamils are asking for international support to seek justice while Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has also indicated that he too will not hesitate to do so, if local means of seeking justice fails. Who benefited from the vicious attacks on that fateful Easter Sunday?(certainly not Muslims!). Why did the prior intelligence about the Easter attacks ignored? – questions which are still waiting for answers! Already the sword of Damocles is hanging over the heads of the rulers with UNHC Resolution against Sri Lanka being expected to be sponsored by world powers, to be taken up on the heels of an incriminating report on human rights by the HR Commissioner published recently mainly over alleged war crimes in the last stages of the war in 2009, human rights violations and also forced cremation issue.
In a recent TV show ‘Pathikada’, Dr Dayan Jayatillake clearly stated that the main reason which is behind Sri Lanka facing this dire situation in the international scene today is more to do with the credibility issues of this present government relating to human rights, during its last year in power, more than the alleged war crimes. He referred to this government throwing stones into an already filled beaker, making it to overflow outside, making it unmanageable. Today, when big powers are in the prowl for an opportunity, the country is turning out to be a scene of disturbing intrigues. Sri Lanka appears to be in an auction market with top nations in Asia and the West bidding for Sri Lanka’s national assets. Today Khan is visiting Sri Lanka at a time when Indo-Lanka relations are at an all-time low. China is extending its influence in the Island including in some small islands belonging to Sri Lanka closer to India, on some power generating contracts. US’ Joe Biden’s government has also decided to come into the fray, calling UNHRC as a beacon-light, in contrast to Trump’s strained relationship with the UN. UK too will join. All these countries have already expressed their concerns about the forced cremation issue as well.
Sri Lankan Muslims too are also seeking justice outside the country’s borders, regarding the failure of the Nandasena’s government to respect their burial rights and its insensitivity towards their religious obligation to bury their dead, when there is no risk of harm to the living. Already Muslims have given up two of their funeral rituals such as washing of the corpse and shrouding upon medical advice. Muslim Diaspora all over the world are supporting the just cause of their brethren to win over their burial rights on grounds of racist and religious discrimination. The Premier Muslim umbrella body in the UK – Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has already spearheaded a campaign to take this issue before the world leaders and formed a well-represented Task Force consisting of community leaders and experts. There is already a complaint being lodged with the UN HR to seek justice to the families who have been sad victims of this racist agenda of the present government which had sought to cremate their dead sans any medical justification. US’ ‘Justice for All’ organization too has joined in to strengthen the global campaign to hold the government of Sri Lanka to account.
What emerged as a critical feature in the Sri Lankan Presidential and General elections outcomes are the strengthening ultra-nationalist (Sinhala Buddhist) phenomenon, which started surfacing in many other countries too in the first decade of the 21st century and gathered strength in the second. In the absence of an alternative force based on humanism, universal brotherhood and unity, narrow minded and xenophobic racism of an emotional kind, which took the form of nationalism, succeeded in winning the support of populations to a great extent. The oft quoted ’69 lakhs’ were however taken for a jolly good ride of deceit, giving them narcotic doses of Muslim/minority threat and national security risks arising from the terrible Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. The slavish electorate resultantly voted in a majoritarian and Sinhala government, not knowing that those who were seeking power were wolves in sheep clothing. Today, a year later, the deceits in ruling armour are being torn between their inefficiency in tackling social and political problems AND the need to maintain the Muslim and minority threat in full public attention to survive in power.
Todate, Muslims of Sri Lanka have maintained commendable patience in respect of the issue of forced cremation and fallen in line with the government policy. They have only resorted to peaceful and democratic means of protest despite the enormous emotional crisis they are facing within. The community leaders are burning the midnight oil to keep their flock in order without overstepping the lines of democracy. They are heartened by the fact that brethren from other communities and progressive forces have seen through the racist agenda of this government in maintaining this myth surrounding burials in the public eyes and minds. They are also encouraged by the level of international support they have been receiving for their just cause. However, time appears to be running out.
Mandatory cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims is sadly polarizing the country at a time it should be unified against the invisible enemy. Hope sanity prevails and the government will review its clearly discriminatory on the mandatory cremation policy, devised based on pseudo medical concerns. Its potentially deadly payback, such as setting off silent chains of community spread and complication of the already fragile ethnic relations in the country is already appearing. Those who make decisions at the highest levels, should therefore also assess the wider social consequences. These can also be mistakes that the Sri Lankans would regret in the years to come.
It was unfortunate that in the twenty-first century, attitudes, habits and thought processes of a bygone era continued to foment racial hatred and segregation. That was creating a vast divide in many countries and an increase in the number of racist incidents. It was the duty of regional and global actors to wipe out the scourge of racism prioritise the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, particularly its new forms. Defence of sovereignty can no longer be used by a country to defend its human rights violations against its citizens.
UNHRC has already given a stern warning to the Sri Lankan Rulers. But, despite growing opposition including from the international community, Nandasena appears to be blind to his ‘nakedness’ and his new clothes – growing alienation of Sri Lanka globally, being labelled as a racist, majoritarian ‘pariah’ State which violates minority rights and with no space for those who do not fall in line with their dictatorial regime policies, undergoing militarization at a rapid rate. With a widely criticised judiciary, people have also no recourse to justice against the governmental actions. This dire situation therefore calls for more active international intervention and response to bring this dictatorial and arrogant government of Nandasena to account in the world court of Justice.