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CONSIDER GENEVA RESOLUTION A NATIONAL ISSUE

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by 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 Sunday bombings of April 2019.

 

OPPOSITION SUPPORT

 Over the past 10 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 politicised 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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UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.

 

The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.

 

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!

 

 

 

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ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.

 

(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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