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A disease, a vaccine, a ‘cure’ and the resurrection of burials

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by Malinda Seneviratne

The third reading of the Budget 2021 was passed in parliament with amendments on Thursday with a majority of 97 votes with 151 voting in favor while 54 voted against it. It was in a sense a reaffirming of the two-thirds majority that the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), acquired to get the 20th Amendment passed. It wasn’t unexpected.

The news of the week was however dominated by issues related to Covid-19. First let’s consider the sober part of things (numbers and measures) before we get to the circus activities.

Two months have passed since the Covid-19 ‘Second Wave’ started. A total of 3,482 cases were reported in the first wave with 13 deaths and as of Thursday December 10, we have 26,592 cases with 131 deaths in the second wave. The numbers keep growing. What of the rates of infections identified against the numbers tested and the overall fatality rate?

As of Thursday, 12,800 of the 30,075 infected overall have recovered. There are 8,131 active cases. The death count stands at 144 (0.48% death rate, i.e. approximately one fatality of every 200 infected).

The daily case load has shown a spike over the past few days, but the major contribution has been from what are not referred to as sub clusters, in particular the prisons, Atalugama and Akkaraipattu. There’s no ‘Minuwangoda Cluster’ to speak of. Brandix is ready to become fully operational.

Prisons and Atalugama pose location-specific problems, isolation in the former being impractical while it is being resisted in Atalugama! This is a peculiar case. Villagers have had issues with the Police on several occasions and there’s a clear aversion to testing. Many who were tested positive absconded thereafter, refusing to be moved to treatment facilities. The result is that 495 cases have been identified over the past two weeks. Four have died.

According to information obtained from various sources including the Epidemiology Unit, hospitals, Police and security forces, infections continue to be reported from the Colombo Municipal areas with rates declining in flats while slum areas remain vulnerable due to congestion. The virus, which seemed to have concentrated in Colombo North appears to be moving South, i.e. from Modara, Mattakkuliya to Maligawatte, Maradana, Dematagoda and now towards Narahenpita, Kirulapone and Wellawatte. Many areas in Colombo North have now been under isolation for almost 50 days.

Testing has focused on vulnerable groups and communities with 643,550 tests conducted since the advent of the second wave, at an average of 13,000 per day. The tests to positive identification ratio has remained stable around 4%.

Globally, the big news was a vaccine that’s currently being administered in the UK. Allergic reactions have been reported, but it is still too early to pass judgment on efficacy. It is not clear when the vaccines (there’s more than one) will be available here. We don’t know if it is affordable either.

Locally, the ‘cure news’ was the announcement by ayurvedic practitioner Dhammika Bandara that he had discovered a concoction that can combat Covid-19. It has been pointed out that trials that satisfy accepted testing protocols had not been conducted. However, an endorsement by the Minister of Health probably contributed to crowds converging on Kegalle to buy the ‘peniya’ (syrup). Basic protection guidelines were flouted. Relevant authorities either turned a blind eye or lacked the skill to enforce safety measures.

The entire operation has since been brought to a halt.

Miracle cures are not the preserve of ‘native practitioners’. The entire pharmaceutical industry is all about profit, not about improving the health of the sick. There are thousands of physicians who prescribe branded drugs who are essentially agents of the industry.

There are no real alternatives to being pro-active and responsible. Protection protocols need to be strictly observed. There was a serious lapse in this regard when it was claimed that a native remedy had been discovered. People rushing to grab ‘the cure’ abandoned all caution. The authorities didn’t move fast enough to bring things under control. Anyone can claim he/she has found a cure. And if anyone believes this (people believe a lot of crazy things, let us not forget) that’s their business. People can rush to buy anything, magic formulas included. They have to follow safety guidelines though!

To be fair, the syrup that drew crowds to Kegalle was made of ingredients that have curative properties. Still, the basic fact that needs to be understood is that 99.50% of the infected recover. Someone can say ‘gotukola kaenda is a cure, it is guaranteed that if 200 people who are infected have a glass every morning, 199 of them will recover fully in 14 days.’ He/she would be proven correct. Replace ‘gotukola kaenda’ with ‘ice cream’ or ‘a fizzy drink’ or ‘meditating on impermanence’ or ‘holding a rosary and praying’ and you’ll get the same result.

And while you remind yourself that it’s best to wear masks (following guidelines), wash hands, keep social distance, etc., if you are infected and end up in a medical facility, the ‘treatment’ you receive is most likely to be steam inhalation (dun aelleema) and coriander (koththamalli) with ginger (inguru)!

So let’s not go overboard with ‘science’ and ‘cures’ (miracle or otherwise). The simple fact that everyone seems to have missed is that 99.50% of the infected recover. The only way to find out in a statistically significant manner that any ‘cure’ works is to test it on a large number of infected persons. If, for example, 10,000 infected persons are given the particular medicine and say less than 25 die, then it means that the recovery rate is bettered by it.

Now if someone said king coconut can defeat Covid-19, 1,000 infected persons take it in the prescribed dosage and 3-5 of them die, it can be claimed that there’s a high recovery rate, but it what’s been proven is that the recovery rate without treatment has not been bettered. Someone else can say ‘try coca cola’ or goto-kola kaenda!

Here’s a fact that one could note: those tested positive and have been moved to various treatment facilities, apart from being treated for fever, cough and so on with medicines usually prescribed for such ailments, are given coriander and subjected to steam inhalation.

Also, those who pooh-pooh anything and everything ‘native’ say nothing about faith-healing, holy water and other kinds of stuff which, if it was practiced by Sinhalese or Buddhists, they quickly dub ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ There’s politics in selectivity.

That said, it was absolutely irresponsible of the health authorities to create hype over this ‘miracle cure’ whose miraculous properties remain untested. It was irresponsible of the state media to sensationalize it. It was irresponsible of the vedamahattaya to offer the medicine without ensuring that the would-be consumers would observe safety guidelines. It was irresponsible of the purchasers to disregard the same. It was irresponsible of the authorities mandate to enforce these guidelines to let things go out of control. Let’s hope that a ‘syrup-cluster’ will not result!

Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid-19 Disease Control State Minister Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle offering a sober voice urged the public not to panic and requested them not to queue up seeking the concoction, until research is concluded. She stated that the Health Ministry was currently in the process of carrying out scientific research on the indigenous medicine.

An interesting side-effect, so to speak, of the syrup bubble is the fact that the Government’s most vociferous opponents have almost completely forgotten what happened the previous week — the Mahara Prison riots that left 11 persons dead and over a 100 wounded.

The report was tabled in Parliament by Justice Minister Ali Sabry. Apparently, some inmates had attempted an escape, ostensibly ‘to escape from getting infected from COVID-19.’ Certain underworld gangs are said to have used the opportunity to turn on rival gangs. Sabry said that things had became tense as they sought speedy redress for issues including congestion.

Much damage was caused by the rioters. Important documents and buildings were set on fire. It is not yet clear on how the 11 prisoners died. Perhaps we will know when the full report is made public, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The other Covid-19 related issue is that of disposing the remains of those who died. The controversy has been over cremating Muslims who succumbed to the virus. As at December 8, 2020, of the 129 deaths, 44 have been Muslims. The percentage is higher than that of the national population slice of that community. Much has been made of this ‘disproportionate Muslim death.’ However, it has to be remembered that most of the deaths are from Colombo and in particular Colombo North where there is a high concentration of Muslims and moreover in congested settings making for a higher infection rate.

A recent article in ‘The Guardian’ by Hannah Ellis-Peterson, their South Asia correspondent, titled ‘Muslims in Sri Lanka “denied justice” over forced cremations of Covid victims’ talks of the travails of that community. Mischievously, one might add. The reference is to a Supreme Court determination that dismissed an application by families who cited ‘religious law.’ ‘Throws out’ is the wording the correspondent used. Neat trick.

However, customary law cannot override the main corpus of a country’s law. Court obviously deferred to the opinion of medical professionals. The problem is that the science pertaining to Covid-19 is a ‘work in progress.’ It is best to err on the side of caution. However, it is significant that over 180 countries have approved burial of Covid victims.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has called on health authorities to ‘find an immediate solution to the burial issue.’ In other words, he’s said ‘revisit the matter.’

Meanwhile, Rauff Hakeem of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has issued a veiled threat: ‘civic resistance if burial of Muslims not allowed.’ As things stand, burial of Covid victims would amount to contempt of court, one might argue. He’s essentially accused the court of sanctioning ‘draconian procedures.’ Perhaps he’s thinking ‘votes.’ ‘At the cost of the overall security and safety of the entire country,’ it could be argued.

Hakeem’s words would sound sweet to extremists in his community. If the government permits burial, then it runs the risk of being accused of ‘pandering to Muslim extremism.’ The truth is hardly relevant to such forces. Perception is what counts and that’s a commodity that can easily be manufactured.

In the end, and in the long run, logic should prevail over emotion. Perhaps the way to alleviate Muslim anxieties is to permit burial but in a manner that has not even the slightest chance of causing anxiety to other communities. The Prime Minister has talked of finding places appropriate for burial, for example.

On the other hand, there’s palpable unease in the Catholic community, the main target of the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic extremists. It goes like this: ‘Muslims believe that if they are cremated they cannot go to heaven. If burial of Covid patients is permitted, then this matter is sorted out as far as they are concerned. What is to stop infected extremists of roaming around Christian communities? They would be fulfilling, in their minds, the will of Allah!’

Is this why the Cardinal is not saying anything on the matter? Perhaps the opinion of that particular religious community should also be sought and made public. They are all part of the nation, after all. Please one community at the cost of hurting another cannot be healthy.

Extremists are seldom placated. If it is not burial it would be something else. Governments cannot allow such a situation to immobilize them. There is a parliament. There are courts. There are the medical professionals. There’s science out there. There’s science being updated.

These are not decisions that require years of deliberation. Decisions should be firm, logical and clearly communicated.

Covid-19 took control of the week, with twists that made things even entertaining as well as worrisome. Let’s hope that sobriety will have its turn.

 

malindasenevi@gmail.com

. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

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Politics

Government by, for and with the UNHRC or the people?

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Last week we wrote that it’s time for the Geneva Circus and that it would come with molehills and mountains. Well, now we have it all in a single document. The report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka is now in the public domain. A dismissing observation frequently used by high school debaters in another era is apt: ‘It reminds one of a Texan bull — a point here, a point here and, yes, a lot of bull between.’

As expected the report waxes eloquent over Resolution 30/1, one which the then Government in its wisdom (read ‘a combination of arrogance, ignorance and pernicious intent’) co-sponsored and from which this government duly withdrew. That co-sponsorship was severely criticized by the then opposition and it is reasonable to assume that the defeat of the Yahapalana Government had a lot to do with that intemperate move. It is not surprising that apart from the aghast of the likes of Mangala Samaraweera and the pro-resolution NGO adjuncts of that government, the decision to withdraw was barely even commented upon in Sri Lanka. Had to be done, was done. That was the message.

The UNHRC report then talks of ‘emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability and human rights’. Flag that word ‘emerging.’ We’ll get back to it presently. The implementation of Resolution 30/1 is commented on. Conclusions and recommendations are offered.

Here are the ‘threats’: a) militarization of civilian government functions, b) Reversal of Constitutional safeguards, c) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, d) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric, e) surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, f) new and exacerbated human rights concerns.

Appointment of ex-military officers as heads of certain state institutions doesn’t constitute ‘militarization.’ They are, for all intents and purposes, civilians and have the same legitimacy as, say, some NGO backer of a particular government being appointed to head, say, the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. However, the extensive role of the security forces in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic can certainly be construed as ‘militarization.’ The report divests comment of context. If Sri Lanka has had any success in managing the pandemic, it is on account of two factors: a strong health infrastructure dominated by state agencies and the absolute commitment at great risk of security forces in tracking and tracing operations over and above the daily grind of ensuring that basic safety protocols are maintained.

It reminds one of the hue and cry over the relief centers set up in anticipation of the end of the conflict and gradually downsized as per lessening requirements following resettlement of the displaced. ‘Concentration camps!’ screamed the objectors, who, not surprisingly are still to go-to people for information when reports such as this are compiled and who, again unsurprisingly, were ardent backers of the Yahapalana government whose ‘performance,’ again unsurprisingly, is (mildly) applauded in the report. Just imagine a bunch of NGOs handling that unprecedented situation where hundreds of thousands of civilians previously held hostage by the LTTE had to be fed, clothed, housed and most importantly connected with families torn apart as the LTTE corralled and moved them to maintain its ‘human shield’. Just imagine a single ministry or department handling the same. It would have been a disaster.

The High Commissioner is ‘particularly troubled’ by the appointment of Lt Gen Shavendra Silva as Army Commander and Maj Gen (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary, Ministry of Defence, because ‘it is ALLEGED (note the word) that they are implicated in ALLEGED (that word again) war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ Governments cannot punish anyone by denying seniority-driven promotions on account of allegations, and certainly not those submitted by individuals and organizations with dubious agenda based on statements/claims that are unsubstantiated. That’s with respect to the Army Commander. As for Gunaratne, he is, as pointed out above, a civilian and the objections on account of allegations are of no worth for the very same reasons mentioned with respect to Silva’s appointment.

Constitutional safeguards. The reference is to the 20th Amendment and talks of ‘democratic gains of the 19th Amendment’. The key ‘issue’ for Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner, is ‘[the erosion] of the independence of key commissions and institutions on account of procedures to select, appoint and dismiss. The 19th, she says, made for a constitutional council of ‘eminent persons’. The CC was severely tinted in favor of politicians. Their eminence, we don’t have to talk about. As for ‘civil society representatives’ they were all political addicts of the then government. They rubber stamped the will (whims and fancies, really) of the then Prime Minister. The 20th has a Parliamentary Council. All politicians. As eminent or otherwise as those in the CC. And look what they’ve done! They approved the promotion of the six most senior judges of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court! How appalling, eh? Then they approved the top most senior judges of lower courts plus a highly respected senior lawyer plus a person from the AG’s Department to fill vacancies in the Appellate Court. Appalling, that!

To be fair, not all appointments to the various commissions followed the same logic. Partisanship has been a factor. However, nothing in these appointments are ‘worse’ than those we saw during the yahapalanaya years; those appointments didn’t provoke as much as a murmur from the bosses of the UNHRC at the time. Telling!

As for ‘democratic space,’ the government has not held the long-postponed provincial council elections. True, they are white elephants. True they are the outcome of the most pernicious piece of post-independence legislation (the 13th Amendment). It’s part of the constitution though. Hold them or amend the constitution, that’s what is logical. Apart from this, it is silly to say that democratic space has shrunk. Elections were held just a few months ago. No complaints of any wrongdoing there. NGO activists can claim to be scared to speak. Claim. It is useful to say ‘scared’.

The report talks about political victimization. Now there are two sides to this coin. The gripe is about cases filed during the previous regime being withdrawn. Fair enough. However, the UNHRC has not bothered to consider the possibility that there were thousands who were hauled before the FCID during that period, many put behind bars etc., but no one found guilty. Whether this is due to some back-house deal among politicians or simply lack of evidence, we don’t know. However, it is no secret that the FCID was run by a few pro-UNP lawyers who used the mechanism to harass one and all who they imagined were Rajapaksa loyalists. If indeed THAT was victimization, offering relief is certainly not out of order. The report makes much of the Shani Abeysekera case, forgetting that he was in the thick of things in the vendetta circus of the previous regime.

The report takes issue with the ‘Commission on Victimization’. The High Commissioner alleges, ‘The Commission has also interfered in other criminal trials, including by withholding documentary evidence, threatening prosecutors with legal action, and running parallel and contradictory examinations of individuals already appearing before trial courts.’ It’s up to the Commission to respond to these charges, which are certainly serious.

Then it talks of ‘majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric’. First off, we’ve had a nauseating load of ‘minoritarianism’ and minoritarian-driven ‘exclusionary rhetoric’. Secondly, the allegations are nothing more that perceptions and demonstrate a woeful lack of appreciation of history, heritage and most importantly demographic realities.

For example, the report says, ‘In June 2020, a Presidential Task Force was established on the sensitive issue of Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, consisting almost entirely of Sinhalese members, including two Buddhist priests, despite the diverse population and heritage of the region.’ Here’s the truth. The vast majority of archeological sites in the island that are ‘Buddhist’ in character so happen to be in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The vandalism of the same at the hands of the LTTE is very well documented. The Government could have included Muslim and Tamil historians and/or archaeologists in this Task Force, true, but the UNHRC statement seems to confuse the past and present. This is archaeology. Period.

As one might expect, the issue of disposing the bodies of the Covid-19 dead has been mentioned. This is a contentious issue with respect to which the Government has not covered itself in glory. However, the politicization of the issue has not been the preserve of the government or the majority community. Not a single all-Muslim community has come forward to say ‘bury them here, right here in our village!’ That ‘lack’ indicates how politicized the issue is, over and above the constant shifting of goal-posts regarding this issue by Muslim representatives (first it was ‘our religious right’ and when that was sought to be affirmed by arranging burial in the Maldives it was ‘we want to be buried in our motherland; now God’s Kingdom now and now Motherland!). Anyway, the UNHRC alleges ‘impact on religious freedom’ and talks of the Covid-19 pandemic ‘exacerbating the prevailing marginalization and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community’.

Marginalized? In what way? Discrimination? In what way? Has Bachelet been advised on privileges enjoyed by the Muslims that are denied to other religious communities? Has the UNHRC talked of the privileges embedded in Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and of course the rank sexism in that community affirmed by the same? Is the marginalization and discrimination of ‘Muslims women’ not an issue for the UNHRC?

The section on surveillance and intimidation of civil society is laughable. Are these actors, with sad and even corrupt histories, above the law? Can they not be questioned or investigated? In any event, all we have with respect to this ‘issue’ are (we assume for lack of any other evidence), complaints. The complainants, as is well known, need to paint a picture of woe to remain relevant (and their organizations to remain financially viable). What’s wrong in checking on funding sources in a world where international organizations are used as cat’s paws by certain countries to destabilize others, especially when the governments in power are not ‘friendly’. This government is certainly not malleable. The previous one was not just malleable but seemed to consider genuflection an article of faith!

The section on Hejaaz Hizbullah is not without merit. There were technical errors committed in the arrest. He’s under a detention order. The UNHRC is upset that he might go for 10 months without being charged. It is indeed revealing of the true political will of the UNHRC that it found no compulsion to comment on the case of Pilleyan (who went 5 years (!) without being charged!).

‘Mysterious deaths under custody’ is an issue. It is a long-standing issue. The 2015-2019 period saw many such cases. UNHRC noted some of these cases but didn’t make a song and dance about it. Molehills were left as molehills. However, such ‘incidents’ scar the government. It’s something the Government does not need.

It is then a report that is full of exaggeration and in a sense a regurgitated whine over Resolution 30/1. It is a report that is built on a long history of falsehood and exaggeration furnished almost exclusively by actors who are certainly not dispassionate nor apolitical but rather had heavily invested in certain outcomes that have nothing to do with human rights or democracy. It is, nevertheless, an official report which charges the government among other things of not responding to queries submitted to it. The Foreign Ministry needs to respond comprehensively.


On the face of it, one might say that this report is just one of the many things that came up this week, but considering the history of such documents and the possible impact, it does warrant extensive response. For example, while the UNHRC report tutors the government on do’s and don’ts, it calls upon the Human Rights Council and member states to do much more than knuckle-rapping.

It wants the Council and member states to explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged (cute term, that!) perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses (yes, guilty until proven innocent, over and above the fact that allegations have been submitted by individuals and organization that have pernicious agenda, the fact that substantiation is weak and reliability of witnesses worth little more than toilet wash). They want to stringent vetting procedures applied to Sri Lankan police and military personnel identified for military exchanges and training programs. Based on allegations, yes.

But here’s something cuter. The Council and member states are urged to ‘prioritize support to civil society initiatives and efforts to reparation and victims’ assistance and prioritize victims and their families for assistance in their bilateral humanitarian, development and scholarship programs.’ Rewards for those who follow the script? The UNHRC could but will not revisit the term ‘civil society’ with respect to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile a gazette was issued on Thursday by the President’s Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera notifying the public of the appointment of a three person Commission of Inquiry (Supreme Court judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz, as Chairperson former IGP Chandra Fernando and retired District Secretary Nimal Abeysiri) to investigate all allegations of human rights. The Commission has been given six months to report findings. The gazette notification alludes to the government’s decisions from withdrawing from Resolutions 30/1, 40/1 and 34/1, notwithstanding which pledges to work with the UN and its agencies on accountability and human resource development to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation.

The government will not be applauded by the UNHRC. That’s for sure. However apart from this ‘basic’ and the basic of comprehensive response, it is important for the government to retain the confidence of the citizens. That’s not only about the UNHRC circus, however. It’s about delivering promises, being acutely aware of and sticking to mandate. In the end, that’s what will matter most.

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Politics

Of Saris and Grapefruit

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by Rukmini Attygalle

A review by Padraig Colman

Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”

The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “

In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “

The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “

We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”

In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”

The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”

Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter. “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”

Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”

There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”

My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.

Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”

She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”

Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.

This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.

 

Of Saris and Grapefruit

is published by Bay Owl Press and is available in all good bookshops at Rs 850.

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Politics

It’s time for the Geneva Circus replete with molehills and mountains

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Circus Pacifica, Apollo Circus and of course the amazing Chinese Circus — readers of an earlier generation will no doubt remember these. The Apollo Circus however planted itself on Pedris Park for quite awhile, but the others were rare.

Perhaps the antics of politicians, political parties, activists of various persuasions and of course the NGO rat pack compensated. They have entertained us even as they went about their charades, clowning, sleight of hand, somersaults and such, prompting quite a few oohs and aahs from an audience that wasn’t exactly applauding in unison.

We could never look forward to the real circuses. We didn’t have to anticipate with bated breath the political circus. However, there’s one which comes around every year around February. The Geneva Circus.

There are essentially two scripts: one to be used when a US-friendly or rather servile-to-the-USA government is in power and the other when the regime is not willing to play ball with eyes closed. In the first case, we get co-sponsored anti Sri Lanka resolutions, soft deadlines, much forgiving and forgetting. The run-up to the UNHRC sessions are not marked by Washington-led media outfits badmouthing Sri Lanka. The separatist groups abroad are in ‘go-easy’ mode. Human rights outfits barely murmur ‘concerns.’ Their local counterparts go into hibernation and the slumber is so deep that they don’t have the eyes to see any wrongdoing.

Well, we are not in that situation right now. It’s ‘the other guys’ in power and perforce it’s the second script that’s being played. This is how it goes.

It begins with the collection/construction of evidence. There are claims that strangely (and by now predictably) are filed without substantiation. Non-movement on agreements that are no longer valid will be noted. There will be a lot of striving and straining to enumerate ‘minority grievances,’ and to this end, the local lackeys in political and NGO circles will do their bit. Statements will be issued by the representatives of nations that have clout in Geneva (the U.S. ‘Cesspool of bias’ description notwithstanding). All ‘concerns’ raised will be duly documented. Human rights outfits, international and local, silent for months, will suddenly find voice.

‘Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021.’

That’s Human Rights Watch. Absolutely predictable. It comes with ‘evidence.’

HRW claims that security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists.’ If activists and claimants of past abuses, political operatives who conveniently wear the lawyer or journalist hat are upset about outcome preferences that haven’t materialized feel some anxiety and want to call it ‘intimidation’ or ‘surveillance’ that’s their right. A state cannot be faulted to be cautious, especially given a 30-year war against terrorism and a jihadist movement that unleashed terror on civilian targets that matched the worst of the LTTE. We don’t even know if there was intimidation or surveillance. We do know that ‘intimidation’ is frequently fabricated, posted on dubious websites and photo-shopped into newspaper cuttings. We know that such ‘evidence’ is sent to the right addresses where the relevant householders lap it all up gleefully.

HRW is upset about Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolutions co-sponsored by a more than mischievous minister on behalf of a government operating absolutely against popular will on the relevant issues. However, when the wording is regurgitated, it does sound ominous. It’s as though Sri Lanka has decided that truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation are irrelevant. That’s hardly the case. Well, not ‘Reconciliation = Eelamist Agenda’ certainly, but those who preferred THAT version were booted out by the voter. HRW has missed the incontrovertible truth that even those who pushed that version, did an about turn, pledging in two major elections to uphold the unitary character of the state. As for the devolution element of reconciliation, not even its most ardent advocates seem interested in provincial councils.

So it’s natural that the HRW feels a reversal in ‘gains of the previous government.’ HRW feels that minorities are ‘more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out.’ That’s what Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the outfit says. It’s cut-and-paste stuff, nothing more.

If ‘security’ is about a separatist agenda moving in the ‘right direction,’ sure, that’s not happening. ‘Victims of past abuses,’ she says — well, such as? Critics? Does she mean those who were unofficial adjuncts of the political camp that lost? They are wary, are they? ‘Wary’ is certainly a politically more useful descriptive than, say, ‘devastated by political defeats.’

There is certainly a more military presence in government. Systemic flaw and woeful incompetence by officials haven’t really helped the President get things done, especially in a pandemic context. It’s no secret that it is the security forces and the State Intelligence Service that have sacrificed the most, working tirelessly around the clock, to support the efforts of the medical teams fighting Covid-19. The retired officers (they are civilians now, let us not forget) haven’t done worse than those they replaced as heads of certain key institutions. In fact, in certain cases, they’ve managed to streamline operations, cut costs and get things done.

HRW says ‘they were, like the President, implicated in war crimes.’ Here we go again! Accusation treated as established fact in a political project which is not described as such, naturally. HRW makes much of the USA announcing that General Shavendra Silva was ineligible to enter that country. Oh dear! The USA passes judgment and that’s the last word? This is the point where the clowns do their turn. Loud applause and much laughter follow!

HRW talks of a ‘false accusation on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus.’ Lots happen on social media. Some take it seriously, some don’t. HRW seems to have done some surveillance and cherry-picked. Good for HRW.

HRW does better on the issue of burials/cremation. The Government has not sanctioned burial. Yet. The issue has been politicized by multiple parties, Muslim politicians included. Maybe HRW is not interested in delving into the details and the complexities, but the Government could (still) act in ways that alleviate the apprehensions of the Muslim community.

The High Commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet has also made the expected noises, flagging ‘freedom of expression’ issues related to what she calls ‘criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation.’ This is not the time to be mischievous and some certainly were, and that, Bachelet and HRW will not agree, can have serious impact on the entire population. The nice thing about it is that neither HRW nor UNHRC has to do the cleaning up when the smelly stuff hits the fan.

Ganguly ends with some poetry. Nice. ‘Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations. Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.’

Concerned governments, she says. Does she mean the USA, UK and those in the EU? Laugh, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what you do when the circus comes to town!

Yes, the EU too. The EU has, as expected when the Geneva Circus is around the corner, ‘raised concerns’ on human rights. The wording is identical, almost: inclusiveness, reconciliation and fair treatment of minorities.’ The EU office has also tweeted that it is ‘saddened by the destruction of the monument at the Jaffna University.’

What’s the story there? Students cannot put up structures at will on state property. If the monument was sanctioned, the person who gave permission was the first culprit. However, having allowed it or turned a blind eye to it (as the case may be), it is wrong to arbitrarily raze it to the ground. The Vice Chancellor opined that it was an obstacle to reconciliation. The students’ response (‘we tell the “Sinhala Government” that we don’t want to fight a war, we just want to honor our dead’) seems to justify his position, but that’s a different matter.

If students want to celebrate brutes, that says a lot about the students. However, if it’s about remembering kith and kin, that’s another matter altogether. If that’s the case, though, why make a political fuss about it? Why turn it into a circus?

The VC has since done a U-Turn and even laid the foundation for a replacement monument. The government missed a trick here. It could have engaged the students. It could have discussed the possibility of a monument before which anyone could grieve, especially the near and dear for the temperature of their tears are the same and truer than those shed by the politically motivated. Could have, should have, still can do. Never too late.

There are circuses and circuses. Some International, some local. We had the US Ambassador finding her voice after a long silence to express dismay over the assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC. ‘We will continue to try to be more perfect,’ she pledged. So, the USA and everything in that country including racism, police brutality and a foreign policy that’s only about securing markets, plundering resources and bombing countries to the middle ages if that’s what pursuing strategic interests entails, is ‘perfect.’ That’s the claim. Laugh ladies and gentlemen!

This week also saw an incarceration drama. Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four year prison term for contempt of court. Naturally, the opposition cried ‘foul.’ Ranjan’s ethics are obviously of the kind that makes ‘foul’ a weak descriptive. He did rant and rave in ways that others did not. He did insult the judiciary. He demanded an independent judiciary but was caught on tape (his own) promising to intercede on behalf of a judge, taking her case to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (yes, under whose watch HRW and the UNHRC says ‘there was progress’!).

Was there political motivation at work in the court decision? We don’t know. We can speculate though. Speculation on this count was fueled by the acquittal of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan allies Pilleyan, former Chief Minister, Eastern Provincial Council and leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

Ranjan in, Pilleyan out! How horrendous! That’s the line the Opposition took.

Well, Pilleyan belonged to a terrorist organization. That’s bad. He was accused of murder. That’s not good. However, on that particular charge, his innocence has to be presumed until and unless proven guilty. He was held for five years without trial. Five years! That’s when the government which HRW and Bachelet believes ‘made some progress.’ Those making a song and dance about Ranjan’s sentence and about ‘the lawyer’ Hejaaz Hizbullah being held without trial over suspected involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, weren’t upset over Pilleyan’s incarceration.

Five years was long enough to find the evidence, but apparently the Attorney General couldn’t make a case. That, or he bowed to political pressure. The former indicates that his predecessor was playing politics with justice. The latter, if that’s the case, doesn’t cover the current Attorney General in glory. However, all this is speculation. We really don’t know.

Maybe investigations regarding Hizbullah are incomplete. He’s been under custody for many months. Not yet ‘years.’ Years, however, is the time-slice in the case of LTTE cadres currently in detention. Neither the previous regime nor this has moved to bring matters to a close. It would be a horrible travesty of justice if they are finally released ‘due to lack of evidence’ or an unwillingness to continue with the prosecution (either of which could be the case with respect to Pilleyan). Not a laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen .

We had the President slipping in Ampara over the last weekend. To be fair by him, the President has been badgered endlessly by Harin Fernando from day one. The President responded in jest, but what he said was not really funny. He alluded to Prabhakaran and how that terrorist’s life ended. Unnecessary. Unbecoming. Harin is, relatively, small fry and his political track record is so sketchy that responding to him constitutes a salute, an undeserved one.

Harin claimed he knew about the Easter Sunday attack AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the election campaign, conducted himself well. He didn’t utter one word about his fellow candidates. He focused on his program. He slipped. That’s no laughing matter either, even though people are making a mountain out of a molehill here.

There was noise over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. The unions and several political parties objected. They met with the President. The talks were disappointing, they said. The President said it will not be sold. He said it’s a joint venture with a minority control for the Indian port development company. He didn’t say that the same company is building a competitor-port in Kerala. Obviously there’s ‘understanding’ that’s not been put into words and made public.

Obviously the (virtual) sale of the Hambantota Port by the previous regime has constrained the President vis-a-vis Indian ‘concerns’. The President has gone on record to say that India’s national security concerns will not be compromised by Sri Lanka. There’s a cheque being cashed by India but we don’t know what we got in return. The vaccine? That’s a laugh — in any case 99.5% of the infected recover, the vaccine is still an unknown quantity and there are alternatives out there in the vaccine market. A (nominal) buffer in Geneva? Possible but again, we do not know. Such things are not said. Arms are not twisted in public.

A government besieged (as this one is) has few options. Geneva is a circus but not one where the Sri Lankan delegation will get to laugh. The Government has one trump. Not Donald. The people.

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