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Kadirgamar Institute criticises AI for bias

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The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) has strongly denied Amnesty International’s latest report on Sri Lanka titled “From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Violence, Discrimination and Harassment in Sri Lanka” (October 2021). Waruni Kumarasinghe and Dinithi Dharmapala of the Strategic Communications Unit, LKIIRSS, issued the following statement: “The AI’s overall argument is that Muslims in Sri Lanka are an oppressed minority, subjected to state-sponsored violence and systematic discrimination. The argument, as will be explained in a moment, is deeply flawed.

According to its official website, Amnesty International’s mission among other things, is to “mobilise the humanity in everyone and campaign for change so that we can all enjoy our human rights.” If this is the case, then AI has an obligation to be fair and balanced when reporting on the human rights situation in a particular country. Furthermore, at a time when extremism is on the rise everywhere in the world, it is incumbent on organisations such as AI, to refrain from exacerbating or stoking ethnic or religious passions by one-sided or partial portrayals. For all these reasons, it is vital to take a closer look at AI’s new report.

As evidence for its claims, the report discusses the anti-Muslim riots that have taken place in Sri Lanka since 2014—i.e. Aluthgama (2014), Ginthota (2017), Digana (2018) Ampara (2018)—and also, a) the proposal to ban the Niqab, b) cremation/burial controversy in regard to Covid-19 death, c) failure to reform the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act of 1951, d) purported efforts to ban Madrassas and also the importation of Muslim religious books and some other matters.

The flaw in the report is that its conclusions do not follow from its sample of evidence. In other words, there is ample evidence, as revealed by the relevant statistics, that the Muslims in Sri Lanka are a thriving and prosperous community. Furthermore, enormous state resources have been channelled especially to the Eastern Province where Muslims are the majority, to facilitate development of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and so on, resulting in tangible benefits to the people of those areas. Such a situation is inconsistent with a State systematically discriminating against Muslims.

In order for a general reader, especially an international reader, to gain an idea of the position of Muslims in Sri Lanka it suffices to consider, a) the trends in population growth, b) foreigners’ observations of the conditions of life of Muslims in Sri Lanka and c) the relative economic strength of the community as a whole. So, let’s turn to these matters, keeping in mind that of Sri Lanka’s population of roughly 21 million, 75% is Sinhalese, 15% Tamil and 9% Muslim.

With regard to population growth, the Department of Census and Statistics, after surveying the trends from 1911-2012, states, “The Sri Lankan Moor community has recorded a phenomenal growth over these years.” (Census of Population and Housing 2012, www.statistics.giv.lk , p.142). To turn to observations by foreigners, Roomana Hukil, a scholar who was working for the international NGO “Peace and Conflict Studies” in 2014, says: “Post 2009, Muslims started flourishing in their business enterprises, trade and commerce units in urban spaces. They gained a foothold in the Sinhalese army and acted as significant contributors to the economy.” (Roomana Hukil, “Muslims in Sri Lanka: Four Reasons for their Marginalisation,” 31 October 2014, www.ipcs.org .)

With regard to the relative economic strength of the community, Professor G.H Peiris, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost academics after surveying the manufacturing sector for the period 1980-1999 has observed that the Muslims have done even better than the Tamils, the second-largest minority. He says,

“It is, of course, known in general terms that, despite the continuing political instability, some of the largest manufacturing firms in Sri Lanka—those that have remained in the forefront of profitability throughout these two decades—are owned by investors from the minority ethnic communities including Sri Lankan Tamils….[Moreover] in light of the evidence indicating that certain investment opportunities in manufacturing were made available to the private sector on the basis of political favouritism, it is likely that among the main ethnic groups in the country, Sinhalese and Muslims have gained substantially more than the Tamils.” (G.H. Peiris, Challenges of the New Millennium, 2006, p. 422)

To repeat, the picture suggested by the above observations is inconsistent with that of the State systematically discriminating against Muslims. It is true that, there have been a number of incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the recent past and it is vital that the reasons for these things be thoroughly examined and addressed. However, from the fact that there have been these incidents it is unreasonable for anyone to suggest that they reveal or reflect systematic discrimination against Muslims in Sri Lanka.

To turn to some of the specific acculled by the report, with regard to the proposal to ban the niqab, it must be said that first and foremost the proposal by the government of Sri Lanka was to ban the burqa not the niqab. It is also important to remember that the origin of the burqa was in middle eastern countries where it was a climate appropriate garment solving the problems of living in deserts i.e. protecting people from fatal sand storms. Sri Lanka’s climate is tropical and hot with periodic monsoon rains, none requiring the protection of a burqa. Easier travel and increased migration is the only reason it has entered Sri Lanka and is not the traditional attire for Muslim women in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the stated intention of the proposal was to ban the full face veil/face covers and did not include other attire of Muslim women, such as the hijab. However, the report insinuates that the proposal reveals a deeper problem, namely, state disrespect for the rights of Muslim women. Moreover, religious head coverings that do not reveal the face have been both a security and an emotive issue in many countries and such bans are in effect today in at least 16 countries in the world, including countries in Europe. So, how does this report make sweeping generalisations, based on this proposal, about the state of Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka?

To such a suggestion, one can also state that the situation of Muslim women in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to education, access to health care, right to work, is often comparable to advanced Western countries and better than in many Muslim countries. Sri Lankan women, including Muslim women have enjoyed adult franchise since 1931. Meanwhile, all Sri Lankan women, including Muslim women, have access to free education, free healthcare, and the right to work.

More importantly, AI’s writers have failed to mention that resistance to Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka comes primarily from their own community. Fathima Fatheena Mubarak, a scholar at the London School of Economics, quotes the Islamic scholar N.A. Nuhuman’s remarks with regard to this matter as follows:

“It is well known that in Sri Lanka Muslim women are heavily dominated by male chauvinistic ideology than are the women of the other communities….A great majority of religious-conscious Muslim men believe that they are the custodians of their women, and according to this ideology they have religious sanction for this belief. No religious sensitive Muslim male accepts the concept of the equality of women. To them it is un-Islamic.” (Fathima Fatheena Mubarak, “Tradition and Modernity: A Sociological Comparison between Muslim Women in Colombo and London,” 2003, www.etheses.lse.ac.uk , p.75)

To turn to the cremation/burial controversy, since burial of the bodies of Covid-19 patients is now allowed there is no longer a controversy. However, the report insinuates that the fact that there was a controversy at all is proof that Muslims are persecuted in this country. Nothing can be further from the truth. First, even at the height of the controversy, the suggestion was only that patients known to have died from Covid-19 were to be cremated. It was not a blanket ban on burials. So, the right of Muslims to bury their dead was never in question. The only issue was whether it was safe to bury bodies known to have had the virus. Moreover, burial of the dead is a practice among Chritians/Catholics and Buddhists as well and is based on individual choice. By extension of the same argument by AI one can claim the decision also discriminated against Chritians/Catholics and Buddhists!!! The fact is the decision was taken and implemented with equal application to all and not intended to discriminate against a particular community.

Second, one must recall that, when Covid-19 began to spread it was a completely unknown disease and many people were terrified of it. Therefore, even though it may have been insensitive of some people to advocate only cremation for bodies of Covid-19 patients, one cannot immediately conclude that they did so because they were against Muslims. One must entertain the possibility that they were genuinely concerned that bodies known to have had the virus might contaminate the ground including the groundwater and thereby be a threat to the living. Since burial is now allowed, it shows that Sri Lankans have the ability as well as the democratic institutional structure with which to correct themselves if and when they make mistakes.

Next, the purported failure to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951. If the Act is to be reformed the impetus for it must first come from the Muslim community itself, and even there it cannot be limited to just ‘activists’ and NGOs but must be broad-based and include vocal support from the Muslim political parties. Otherwise, the accusation will be leveled that the Sinhalese majority is yet again trying to impose its will on the Muslims. Once there is such broad-based support from the Muslim community for the reforms in question, there is no doubt they will take place.

Finally, the accusation that the Government has tried to ban Madrasas and also obstruct the importation of Muslim religious books by declaring that such books must first be reviewed by the Defence Ministry. The report claims that this is a violation of the rights to freedom of thought and conscience as well as the right to practice one’s religion guaranteed by the relevant provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution as well as international covenants.

However, as the Easter Sunday attacks showed, and even more recently the attacks in Norway (where a suspected Islamist extremist killed five persons with a bow and arrow) and in the U.K. (where a suspected Islamist stabbed to death a Member of Parliament) show, Islamist extremism is not going away and it is the duty of every State to take every reasonable measure to confront it. It is not in dispute that, radical religious preachers are one of the prime means through which Islamist extremism is propagated.

Therefore, it is reasonable that some measures be taken to monitor and regulate such persons and/or materials. In any event, from the fact that the Sri Lankan State has considered such measures it does not follow that the State is bent on attacking the freedom of thought and conscience of Muslims in general as the AI report seems to suggest.

The past 50 years have shown that every ethnic community in Sri Lanka has some issue to be aggrieved about, some real and some a matter of perception. Reconciliation is very much a work in progress. However, biased accounts that do not reflect ground realities only serve to sow discord and suspicion which hardly helps to heal wounds and help all communities live in harmony. Allegations of systematic discrimination, where none exists, do not help at all.

Overall, AI’s report is one-sided. Given its credo of enhancing and advancing the human rights of all persons, AI should have taken pains to present a more balanced and fair portrayal of the situation of Muslims in Sri Lanka.



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Collective Cabinet responsibility won’t be at country’s expense

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Udaya: We are ready to face consequences of revolting against backdoor Yugadanavi deal

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila says that in spite of being members of the Cabinet, he along with National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa and Democratic Left Front (DLF) leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara, have supported the petitions filed against the government entering into a framework agreement with US-based New Fortress Energy in respect of Yugadanavi Power Plant, etc., as they strongly felt that collective Cabinet responsibility should not be at the expense of national security.

Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader and Attorney-at-Law Gammanpila emphasised they had challenged the Cabinet over the controversial agreement following careful examination of what he called a politically charged situation.

The Colombo District MP said that they were ready to face the consequences of legal measures they had resorted to. Minister Gammanpila said so in response to The Island query whether they could continue as members of the Cabinet after having objected to an international agreement, finalised by the government.

Gammanpila said that they had never tried to hide their intentions and they felt embarrassed by the way some in the government manipulated the very process that was meant to ensure transparency and accountability.

Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, on behalf of the government, entered into an agreement with New Fortress Energy, a company listed in the NASDAQ, on July 7, 2021, two days after Cabinet decided on the matter.

Gammanpila said they had tried to settle the issue at the Cabinet level and at the government parliamentary group. “Finally, we were left with no alternative but to denounce the New

Fortress deal and then throw our weight behind those who moved the Supreme Court against it,” Minister Gammanpila said.
The SLPP repeatedly demanded that whatever the issue the constituents should settle it within the government parliamentary group and the Cabinet.
Minister Weerawansa told Parliament on 11 November that an Attorney-at-Law would represent the trio at the Supreme Court proceedings.
Responding to another query, Minister Gammanpila questioned the rationale behind bringing in a company that hadn’t been involved in the tender process in respect of a high profile project involving the West Coast Power Limited (WCPL). The minister said that the US firm had spurned the tender process as it received an assurance as regards the contract.

The US government pushed for the deal meant to secure 40 percent shares of the WCPL at a cost of USD 250 mn, Minister Gammanpila said.
The Cabinet memorandum as regards the sale of WCPL shares, in addition to the floating storage regasification unit, mooring system and the pipelines and the supply of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is dated 06 Sept., 2021, months after Sri Lanka entered into FA with New Fortress Energy.

Asked whether the NFF, PHU and DLF would receive the support of other parties including the SLFP, Minister Gammanpila said that those who had pledged support for their cause remained committed and confident.

In addition to the NFF, PHU and DLF with a combined strength of eight MPs, the grouping against the New Fortress deal included the SLFP (14 members), CP (1 MP), Yuthukama (2 members) and Tiran Alles. Over two dozen elected and appointed members of the SLPP are against the New Fortress deal.

Of the smaller constituents in the government, the MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) has distanced itself from the campaign against the energy deal.
Minister Gammanpila said that in his current capacity as the energy minister he had been compelled to struggle against the energy project as it posed a threat to the country. Referring to the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa sacking ministers, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayaka and G.M. Premachandra in 1991, Minister Gammanpila said that the UNPers sought the Supreme Court intervention. The SC ruled that in case ministers had been deprived of an opportunity to discuss some matter at the cabinet, they could do so with the public, Gammanpila said, adding that they pursued a strategy based on that SC position.

Minister Gammanpila said that Sri Lanka couldn’t afford to create a foreign monopoly in the gas supply to the country. The situation would be far worse as the proposed monopoly would be American, Gammanpila said, noting that in spite of entering into a spate of other agreements with foreign partners under controversial circumstances, the incumbent government seemed to have perpetrated an unpardonable act.

Minister Gammanpila said that the US energy deal would deliver a knockout blow to Sri Lanka’s efforts to tap gas in the Mannar seas. The consequence of this arrangement would be far reaching and devastating as far as Sri Lanka was concerned, the minister said. If the New Fortress deal was carried pit. Sri Lanka wouldn’t be able to bring in other investors to extract gas from the Mannar basin, the minister said.

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State and private sector union members on sick leave demanding Rs 10,000 pay hike

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Protesting workers blocking the entrance to the Presidential Secretariat yesterday morning (pic by Nishan S. Priyantha)

Members of several state, semi-government and private sector trade unions took sick leave yesterday (08) as part of their trade union struggle to win a number of demands including a 10,000-rupee pay hike and the cancellation of the questionable New Fortresss deal.

Unions of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), the Ports Authority and Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) have pledged solidarity with the protesting workers.
The unions held demonstrations near the Parliament Roundabout and the Fort Railway Station.

They opposed the government decision to raise the retirement age to 65.
“There are over 25,000 postal workers and about 80% of them have joined the union action. This is the case in other sectors too,” President of Sri Lanka Postal Services Union Chinthaka Bandara said.

He demanded that the government increase their salaries through the budget 2022. “Otherwise, we will resort to sterner trade union action. The cost of living has gone through the roof and the Central Bank has admitted that inflation has risen sharply. Most companies in the private sector have reduced the salaries of employees and the allowances in the government sector too have been slashed. People will have to starve at this rate, “Bandara said. (RK)

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Contaminated fertiliser: Case to be taken up on May 09

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By Ifham Nizam and Chitra Weerarathne

The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)’s lawsuit to stop unloading here of allegedly contaminated organic fertiliser, CA WRIT 476/2 was taken up yesterday before Court of Appeal Justices Achala Wengappuli and Dhammika Ganepola.

Taking the facts into account the Court ordered that the case be recalled on May 9, 2021.

At a previous hearing the court questioned the Attorney General whether the Government was in a position to assure that they would not allow the controversial load of fertiliser to be unloaded. In response to that request Deputy Solicitor General Nirmalan Wigneswaran, who appeared on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture informed the Court yesterday that the vessel carrying the controversial fertilizer belonging to the Chinese company has left Sri Lankan maritime space.

Senior Counsel Ravindranath Dabare, Ms Nilmal Wickramasinghe (AAL) and Ms Thushini Jayasekara (AAL) appeared for the petitioners on the instructions of Ms. Samadhi Hansani Premasiri (AAL).

In the petition. CEJ argued that organic fertiliser from any country could not be imported into Sri Lanka, under any circumstance, according to the regulations of the Plant Protection Ordinance imposed in 1981 and Plant Protection Act No. 35 of 1999 as it prohibit the import of soil particles, living organisms, any virus, bacteria or fungus cultures into the country, given that organic manure/compost is made of decomposing animal and plant parts, which could consist of pathogens.
However, when the samples collected from this controversial shipment were tested Sri Lankan authorities found harmful organisms. As a result, National Plant Quarantine Service did not issue any import permit particularly for this bulk stock of so called “Organic Fertilizer”, the petitioner pointed out.

It also said that based on those facts the Director General of Agriculture had issued a letter dated 22.10.2021, addressing the Chairman, Sri Lanka Port Authority, requesting him to prevent the berth of the vessel carrying this stock of Fertilizer at the Colombo Port and not to discharge any of its organic fertilizer into the Sri Lankan territory claiming it carried a huge phytosanitary risk to Sri Lanka.

In addition to this Ceylon Fertilizer Company also obtained an enjoining order (on 22.10.2021) from the Commercial High Court of Colombo against Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd; the supplier and the People’s Bank, preventing the latter from making any payment under the Letter of Credit opened in favour of Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd which has entered into a contract with Ceylon Fertilizer Company.

However, in spite of all these Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd officially informed The Director General of Agriculture that its consignment of fertilizer which was shipped from China on 29th September 2021 would reach Sri Lanka as scheduled.

The Center for Environmental Justice therefore had to file an urgent motion CA WRIT 476/21 on (25.10.2021) to prevent the stock of fertilizer from entering the country owing to political or public pressure.

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