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Religious clergy take stand for religious right to burial

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By Jehan Perera

The map of Covid infection in the country is steadily spreading to more remote parts of the country, radiating from the Western province,which has been the worst affected and the site of origin of the second wave of infection. There was an expectation that the government would institute a lockdown during the final week of the year to prevent people from travelling and celebrating the beginning of a new year. This impression was strengthened by Public Health Inspectors collectively making their disquiet known by calling on the government to order a stop to inter-provincial travel. The government might have been reluctant to put such an inter-provincial travel ban into effect when it is trying to persuade foreign tourists to commence international travel to the country.

With the Covid situation nowhere near as dire as in other parts of the world, there is a kind of self-satisfaction in the Sri Lankan approach to the pandemic, which is perhaps best manifested in the government’s delay to place orders for the Covid vaccine. As in the case of the Covid cremation issue, where a government-appointed committee has been wrestling with the issue for over six months, another government-appointed committee is reportedly contemplating what vaccine to order. In the context of this calm attitude it can be expected that many people felt secure enough to host parties and enjoy themselves in hotels over the holiday weekend with scant regard to the advice of medical specialists that the less person-to-person interaction the better it would be from a Covid control perspective.

On the other hand, the impact of the coronavirus has been greater in some parts of the country than in others, and even in some parts of the cities than other parts within the same city, Those living in crowded circumstances in which social distancing is difficult and hygienic sanitation facilities are not available have been most at risk. The prison population which epitomizes these features has been disproportionately affected with catastrophic consequences in terms of their rejection of the situation they are in. The prison riots that took place can be a harbinger of what can happen in the larger society if a large section of the people feel they are being trapped and marginalized to suffer the consequences. Among these worst affected sections of the population, it appears that the Muslim community has been disproportionately affected by the Covid infection.

DANGEROUS SENTIMENTS

Even though the Muslims are only around 10 percent of the national population, it appears that a larger number of Covid deaths have been experienced within their communities. But this is only partly on account of the more congested nature of their living situations. Unlike the Sinhala and Tamil communities who have traditionally been agricultural and own land, the Muslims who originally came to the country to be traders, tend to live in more urban settings with less space for housing. There is also another significant factor that feeds into the greater numbers of Muslims who fall victim to the coronavirus at present. They are afraid that if they are confirmed as Covid patients, both they and their relatives will be at risk of being forcibly cremated if they fail to recover from the coronavirus infection, which goes against fundamental Islamic tenets.

During the holiday season I received a number of telephone calls from civil society members across the country. The greater concentration of coronavirus relative to population amongst the Muslim community is a theme that has spread among the general population. A Muslim moulavi in Panduwasnuwara in the Kurunegala district bemoaned the fate of the Muslims who are feeling unjustly treated by the government on account the enforced cremation of Covid victims who die. This was not surprising as it is grievance that virtually all Muslims articulate, even the Minister of Justice. The fact that the religious belief of the Muslim community is being violated has led the leader of the nationalist Bodhu Bala Sena, the Buddhist prelate Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara to speak up for the religious right of the Muslims to be buried even in cases of Covid deaths.

The Venerable Monk said that issues pertaining to burying the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 should not be politicised, adding that Muslims should be allowed to bury the bodies as it was a matter of religious belief. “It is a religious right of Muslims. Because they believe that human beings are born on this earth and one day they should be a fertilizer for the earth. That is Muslim culture. That is a religious right.” He also recommended the addition of religious representatives to the expert committee on disposal of bodies dying of Covid-19, which comprises of medical officials and technical experts. He also urged for the formation of a proper policy by the government. He also warned that if unresolved, this issue could intensify emotions to proportions where the issue is not what is right but which side will win.

WINNING TRUST

Reflecting the enlightened sentiments on this issue by the Ven Gnanasara, a Buddhist civil society member from Monaragala had a positive message to give. He said that the district inter-religious group that he was coordinating had decided to donate the travel allowance that they had received to support a nearby Muslim village which was under lockdown due to the discovery of Covid patients. This had happened because the inter religious group had Muslim members in it who had been able to win the trust and confidence of the Sinhala and Tamil members due to their interactions in the committee they had formed. These informal groups constitute a first line of defense against the spread of inter-community mistrust and violence and are effective problems solving bodies at the community level. This suggests the value of structured interactions across ethnic and religious divides that can build the trust among communities and build the nation.

The role that religious clergy can play in bringing divided communities together cannot be under estimated. In the Sri Lankan context, religious clergy are highly respected and given status that even exceeds that given to politicians despite their greater access to resources and to coercive power. They are persons who are respected and influential in their communities. As a result they can have a multiplier effect in their localities. They have sufficient maturity to continue with peace and reconciliation work and necessary experience to navigate the political space if they choose to do so. This is now visible in the joint statement issued by the Buddhist clergy of the Amarapura and Ramanya Nikayas who have written to the President requesting him to reconsider the government policy to enforce cremation of Covid dead against the religious traditions of the Muslims and other religious groups, such as the Catholics.

Civil society organisations such as the National Peace Council have shown at a micro level that it is possible to build goodwill between communities and enable them to mitigate potential conflicts without spilling over into violence. During the period of the last government there was an attempt to establish District Reconciliation Committees (DRCs) in every district under the leadership of the government’s District Secretary. According to Dr Joe William of the Centre for Communication Training who undertook a study of those structures, “The functions of the DRCs would be undertake study on the background and causes of religious and ethnic tensions in the locality; formulate suitable strategy and mediate the problems; provide rapid response to resolve conflicts and tensions; mediate conflict resolution; maintain database on incidence of tensions and negotiate and resolve conflicts.” This is an initiative that the present government would do well to revive to face the challenges of the present time from the grassroots to the national level. It will also serve as a vent to the emotions felt by people trying to find a solution or provide an opportunity to air them at least.

 

 



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Features

Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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