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SL faces critical Covid-19 pandemic situation as positive cases approach 10,000

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Contagion has already spread to 23 districts

by SURESH PERERA

With the number of Covid-19 patients in Sri Lanka fast approaching the 10,000 mark, the country is on the verge of a critical pandemic situation, a top medical official warned.

“The danger is that countries which had reached 10,000 in terms of corona virus infected persons, had seen the figures doubling in no time”, says Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, Deputy Director of the Medical Research Institute (MRI).

He said that many countries, which topped 10,000 Covid-19 cases, experienced an unprecedented leap thereafter with figures of patients swiftly zooming to 20,000 plus in an alarming upward trajectory.

“We have to make a concerted effort to tackle the transmission of the virus and keep the emergence of new infections at bay in a bid to overcome the health crisis”, he stressed.

Dr. Bandara said the deadly infection has already spread to 23 districts in Sri Lanka but there’s every possibility that it may have crept into the other two districts as well and remain undetected.

The government has set out a series of public health guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus, and it is important to keep in mind that strict adherence to the preventive measures will help in a big way to bring the situation under control, Dr. Bandara emphasized.

“We are doing our part, and it is in the hands of the people to prevent the virus from spreading any further through responsible behavior in the face of a grave crisis”, he continued.

The elderly should take additional precautions as the infection could prove fatal, particularly to those with underlying diseases, he cautioned.

“Hypothetically, if there are 500 positive cases in every 1,000 people we screen, there will be 1,500 patients for every 3,000. One can imagine how frightening such a scenario will turn out to be”, he elaborated.

Asked about reports on the delay in PCR reports reaching patients, Dr. Bandara said there have been complaints that some reports take as many as four to five days to be released.

“Earlier, we used to issue PCR reports within 12 hours but with the surge in the number of infected patients, there is a delay”, he said.

Asked whether a PCR screening system break down has led to the accumulation of more than 10,000 reports, he said he was not aware of it but with numbers spiraling there was cause for delays.

On whether the corona viral strain that infected people in the Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda fish market second wave had a heavier load, he replied, “Yes, the strain is stronger than the previous eruption”.

Asked whether the health authorities have “lost control over tackling the contagion”, as claimed in some quarters, the Health Ministry’s Director of the Epidemiology Unit, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, countered “if we have lost control, we will say so”.

When asked for his thoughts on the gravity of the Covid-19 situation in the country, he said: ‘Don’t bother me. I can’t be talking to the media saying the same thing all the time. I have work to do”.

“What some of these people should realize is that the support of the media is imperative in this hour of need to create greater public awareness”, a senior medical official said.

With the virus going haywire, health officials may be under tremendous pressure, but being hostile to the media is simply counter-productive in a crisis situation, he added.

“After all, the media is not to be blamed for the mess up”.



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Litro Gas grappling with billions of rupees in losses as govt. still undecided on LPG price hike

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by Suresh Perera

With staggering losses running into Rs. 3.8 billion (Rs. 3,800 million) over the past three months, Sri Lanka’s biggest importer and supplier of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) is in the throes of a grave financial crisis as the government continues to dilly-dally on the demand for a substantial increase in the price of cooking gas.

“There’s no option other than to absorb the mounting losses as no price revision has been granted so far”, says Anil Koswatte, Chairman/CEO of Litro Gas Lanka.

“We are facing an uphill task in continuing operations amidst the financial difficulties”, he noted.

LPG prices zoomed in the global market over the past quarter with a ton selling at a new high of US$ 600.

“There’s a ray of hope now that international prices will reduce further”, Koswatte said, referring to the marginal dip over the past week with pricing per tonnage settling at US$ 539.

Litro Gas has sought a Rs. 700 increase per domestic cylinder in a desperate bid to at least cover procurement costs, but the government go-ahead has still not been forthcoming, a senior official said.

“The more people buy cooking gas, the more the losses we suffer as 700 rupees are lost on every cylinder purchased”, he explained.

Litro’s biggest marketing segment is the domestic household market, which translates into 83% of total sales.

Asked whether a government bailout has been sought as, with billions of rupees in accumulated losses, Litro Gas was being pushed towards a cash crunch, the Chairman said that as a company, Litro Gas cannot expect a subsidy from the Treasury.

“Anyway, we are trying to work out some relief and a meeting has been scheduled to examine the possibility of tiding over the situation”, Koswatte noted.

In terms of the law, Litro Gas, though a private company, cannot increase the price of domestic LPG cylinders without the approval of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA). However, industrial LPG cylinders are excluded from the price control mechanism.

There’s still no word from the government on the price revision on domestic gas cylinders that was sought about two months ago, a senior official said.

“Even if a price increase is finally granted, we won’t be able to recoup our losses”, he pointed out.

It is true that at a time the government has come under fire over the spiraling cost of living, increasing the price of cooking gas will make a bad situation worse, he admitted.

However, there should be a level playing field for companies also to remain viable to continue their uninterrupted services to the public, he reasoned.

Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) is the primary shareholder of Litro Gas Lanka Limited with 99.94% shareholding.

The impact of a LPG price hike will reflect across the board with low and middle income groups having to bear the brunt of it as a range of food items, from the ordinary man’s buth packet to flour-based products such as stringhoppers, roti, pittu and hoppers going up in price.

As even wayside eateries now depend on cooking gas, a price revision of food items will be inevitable, industry players said.

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Senior banker K. B. Rajapakse appointed APB President

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Senior banking professional, K. B. Rajapakse of the People’s Bank, was unanimously appointed President of the Association of Professional Bankers (APB) for 2021/2022 at its 32nd Annual General Meeting (AGM) held recently.

Established in 1988, the APB has been the most representative organization of banking professionals in the country and has functioned as a forum that brings together leading personalities in business administration and intellectual discussion in the contemporary banking scene.

The AGM of the Association was held on March 25 at Bougainvillea Ballroom, Galadari Hotel on a hybrid basis, where a large number of APB members attended the meeting physically in keeping with recommended health and social distancing guidelines, while another group of members attended the meeting virtually.

Addressing the gathering after his appointment, Rajapakse said that APB would be in a strong position to contribute to the banking fraternity and to achieve the national development goals of the country.

He emphasized on the need for each member to take up the challenge to think out of box and be creative thinkers in order to make necessary changes, which will be vital not only to survive, but to succeed as well.

“All of us are professional bankers shouldering responsibility in our respective offices, committed to make profits, improve the bottom line and further develop our banking institutions. As a professional body, you and I know that banking comes with strict regulations. So the real challenge is to achieve our objectives which include retaining sufficient flexibility to satisfy our customers within the regulatory boundaries under the ‘new normalcy’ with new systems, new products, new management styles and digitalization”, he stressed.

Rajapakse has 33 years plus experience at People’s Bank, of which over 12 years was in corporate and executive management. He is at present the Senior Deputy General Manager of Payment and Digitalization.

He is a Fellow member of the Institute of Bankers of Sri Lanka and an Attorney. He holds a Diploma from the Institute of Credit Management of Sri Lanka.

The following were elected APB office bearers and council members for 2021/22 and also to the Fund Management Committee:

President: K. B. Rajapakse, Senior Vice President: Jeremy De Zilva, Vice Presidents: Halin Hettigoda & B. A. H. S. Preena, Treasurer: Indika Kudagamage, Secretary-General: Anton Arumugam, Assistant Secretary: Mahesha Amarasuriya.

Nominated council members: K. Raveendran, M. R. N. Rohana Kumara, Theekshana Pandithasekara, Hasrath Munasinghe, Anjali Gunathilake, Christine Jesudian, Vijitha Kumarasiri, Asitha Pinnaduwa and Isuru Jayaweera.

Fund Management Committee members: Hennanayake Bandara, Aravinda Perera, Sunil De Silva & Ms. Shashi Kandambi Jassim.

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Inciting ethno-religious animosity has become a means of survival for parts of Sri Lanka’s political elite

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What is behind the anti-Muslim measures in Sri Lanka?

Farzana Haniffa

Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo

On March 13, Sarath Weerasekara, Sri Lanka’s minister of public security, announced that the government will ban wearing of the burqa and close more than 1,000 Islamic schools in the country. The minister was quoted as saying that “the burqa” was a “sign of religious extremism” and has a “direct impact on national security”.

The news was picked up internationally and resulted in several statements by human rights organisations and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, as well as from Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka. Three days later the government stepped back from Weerasekera’s statement. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella announced that the decision “requires time” and a consultative process.

The burqa ban announcement caused a stir among Muslims, who saw it as yet another attack on their community. In the past few months, the government has undertaken a number of controversial measures under the banner of fighting extremism, which have increasingly intimidated the Muslim population and disregarded rule of law principles.

The anti-Muslim movement

Since it gained independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka has witnessed tumultuous relations between the Sinhala Buddhist majority, which makes up about 70 percent of the population and the Hindu and Christian Tamil minority, which accounts for roughly 12 percent. During the war between the military forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), other minorities, like the Muslims, who make up around nine percent of the population, were targeted less frequently by ultra-nationalist Sinhalese groups.

After the end of the civil war in 2009, an anti-Muslim movement initiated by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), with the monk Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara at the helm, began to emerge. The BBS is an activist group led by Buddhist monks which mobilised around what they described as the threat posed by the “social separatism” of “extremist Muslims”. Their definition of extremism, however, seems to encompass the majority of Muslims’ everyday practices.

The BBS’s large public rallies and their strident social media campaigns normalised hate speech and everyday low-intensity harassment of Muslims across the country. Incitement by the BBS and the cultivation of anti-Muslim sentiment over the post-war years also led to violent attacks against small Muslim communities in 2014, 2017 and 2018. The BBS also aligned itself with similar groups in Myanmar.

Following these incidents, the local authorities did not take serious action against BBS and other similar groups and in some cases blamed Muslims for the violence.

In 2019, anti-Muslim hatred escalated further after eight suicide bombers pledging allegiance to the Islamic State detonated themselves at churches, hotels and other locations across the country on Easter Sunday. There was evidence of the failure to pursue available intelligence by the security establishment and negligence on the part of the political leadership. However, the media coverage of the event and government policy discussion in the aftermath primarily targeted the country’s Muslim population.

Experts rarely referenced the role of the anti-Muslim movement in radicalising local Muslims. In May, there were violent retaliatory attacks against Muslim communities in the northwest.

The government response to the attack was to embrace the anti-Muslim language of the BBS and initiate sweeping arrests of suspected followers of the group responsible for the bombings.

Since then, several prominent Muslims have also been arbitrarily targeted by the government, with little or no evidence produced of their wrongdoing. In April 2020, the police arrested Hejaaz Hisbullah, an activist lawyer, on suspicion of aiding the attackers. Then in May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem, a young Muslim poet, was also detained under the same pretext. Recently, the former leader of the Jamati Islami, Hajjul Akbar was arrested and detained for a second time, again without charges being filed.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, a parliamentary sectoral oversight committee on national security was set up to put together proposals for terrorism prevention measures. It has made recommendations in 14 areas, many of which curb the religious rights of the Muslim minority.

The burqa ban and the closing of Islamic schools stem from these recommendations, as do several other measures recently taken. In early March, the government declared that all Islamic books imported into the country will need defence ministry approval. Several days later, it gazetted a set of regulations ominously sub-titled “Deradicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The regulations give it powers to arrest and forward persons to a rehabilitation centre to be “deradicalised” for one year on suspicion without requiring any additional process.

Apart from the above, the government has sought other ways to intimidate the country’s Muslims. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Sri Lanka in the spring of 2020, it imposed a mandatory cremation policy for the COVID-19 dead and refused to allow Muslims to bury their dead, in accordance with their religion.

Muslims’ call for the burial option on religious grounds was written and talked about as “tribal” and “backward” and as reprehensible behaviour in the middle of a public health emergency. Despite condemnations at home and abroad and guidelines by the World Health Organization emphasising the safety of burials, the government maintained its position for nearly a year. Burial was permitted only recently under international pressure.

 

Demonising Muslims as a political strategy

Political elites in Sri Lanka have consistently demonised minorities and incited ethno-religious animosity to win elections. After the end of the war in 2009, when victory over the Tamil Tigers was glorified by the government, enmity against all other minorities and especially the Muslims was cultivated with renewed vigour.

The Rajapaksa family, which has dominated the political scene in Sri Lanka since 2005, was complicit in this cultivation until their electoral defeat in the 2015 elections. During their political campaigning after 2015, the Rajapaksas’ new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), took on a Sinhala supremacist position, accommodating activist monks and anti-Muslim movement stalwarts.

Rhetoric regarding Muslim business prowess as challenging the ascendence of Sinhala entrepreneurs, Muslims conspiring to upend the majority status of Sinhalese or constituting a terrorist threat was widely used.

In October 2018, the Rajapaksas suffered a significant setback. Former president and then MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, in collusion with President Maithripala Sirisena staged a coup to take control of the government. They were defeated when the Supreme Court threw out their claim to legitimacy and the Rajapaksa brand suffered some damage as a result.

The 2019 bombings energised the Rajapaksas’ familial politics and helped them overcome the momentary unpopularity they were struggling with.  The Rajapaksas attempted to leverage the bombings to their political advantage in the immediate aftermath.  They accused the ruling regime of concentrating on reconciliation with minorities and neglecting security. When several months later, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was nominated as the SLPP’s presidential candidate, he declared in his platform: “My main task would be to ensure that our motherland which is once again under threat from terrorist and extremist elements is safe and protected.”

Using anti-minority and pro-security rhetoric in his campaign, Rajapaksa won the presidential election by a high percentage of Sinhala Buddhist votes and appointed his brother, Mahinda, the former president as prime minister. Since then, at every opportunity, the president has reiterated his commitment to this majority and outlined his actions to combat Islamic extremism, and the government has pressed forward with anti-Muslim policies.

In this context, the recent flurry of anti-Muslim government activity, including the burqa ban, serve not only to mitigate the fallout from the shift in position on COVID-19 burials, but also to distract from the Rajapaksa administration’s ongoing failures. The cabinet is facing anger over a vast tax scam, mounting opposition to its permission of deforestation, and growing public anxiety over the economic downturn. It is likely that anti-Muslim activities will increase if their popularity continues to decline.

But the anti-Muslim policies of the government may be backfiring. In March, it suffered a defeat at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which passed a resolution empowering the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect and preserve information and evidence of war crimes committed during the civil war. The motion went through mainly because of the loss of support for the government from some Muslim-majority countries, who abstained from voting. The resolution included reference to the government’s treatment of Muslims in its COVID-19 response and the continued marginalisation of minorities.

The current government’s inability to mobilise its constituency around anything other than ethno-religious animosity is a legacy of Sri Lanka’s post-independence politics that looks set to continue in the long term. The UNHRC resolution was a welcome development. However, the future outlook for minorities in the country remains bleak. Ten years after a devastating war the Sri Lankan polity shows little evidence of having learnt from its past. (Al Jazeera)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

(Farzana Haniffa is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo. She has published on the social and political history of Muslims, gender politics and the anti-Muslim movement in Sri Lanka)

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