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.
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.
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.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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