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Sri Lanka stokes Muslim and Christian ire with COVID burial rules

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Rajapaksa’s forced cremations of minority victims worsen human rights record

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

COLOMBO — Predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka’s ultranationalist government is forcing families of the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities to abandon their faith-based burial rites for relatives who die of COVID-19 — consequently inviting fresh international scrutiny of the nation’s already troubled human rights record.

As the country’s death toll from the pandemic inches toward 200, the government of the hawkish President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is sticking to a policy backed by hard-line allies from the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, the political constituency that helped Rajapaksa secure two thumping electoral mandates over the past year. The official policy is for COVID-19 victims to be swiftly cremated. It has sent religious minorities already grieving for lost kin into deeper anguish.

The youngest victim was a 20-day-old Muslim baby who was forcibly cremated against the parents’ wishes. An estimated 80 Muslims have died of the coronavirus, with their surviving family members suffering the same indignity. The pandemic has infected close to 40,000 people since the first case was detected on the Indian Ocean island early this year.

The policy “has led to so much agony within the community at a time when they have to grieve for someone who has died,” said Shreen Saroor, a leading Muslim women’s rights activist. “The relatives are caught in a dilemma of having to sin and having so much guilt for being part of the sin because of the cremation.”

The anti-burial measures endorsed by Rajapaksa, who enjoys autocratic powers following a constitutional amendment, have been defended on two grounds that have made Sri Lanka an outlier in the global response to the deadly pandemic. One rationale is that burying COVID victims could result in the virus spreading in the soil and contaminating the country’s water table. The other: Muslims will use the dead bodies in graves as a “biological weapon.”

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa government’s forced cremations appear to have touched off a sense of solidarity in a deeply polarized nation. © Reuters

Sri Lanka’s stance flies in the face of the international consensus among medical scientists and virologists regarding the last rites of COVID victims. The World Health Organization, the Geneva-based U.N. body, has shaped international opinion with guidelines that state the choice of cremation or burial of a COVID victim is a cultural decision. Over 180 of its members have endorsed this.

Not surprisingly, there are emerging signs that Sri Lanka will pay a diplomatic price for Rajapaksa’s efforts to weaponize COVID. Colombo-based embassies from the world’s Muslim countries “are monitoring the burial ban closely and gathering information,” said a diplomatic source from an Asian mission in the Sri Lankan capital.

The embassies have taken a cue from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a Saudi Arabia-based 57-member bloc that has issued three statements condemning Sri Lanka’s forced cremation policy.

Likewise, Western diplomatic missions have stood behind statements issued by U.N. officials about the Rajapaksa government hounding religious minorities in their hour of grief. “I fear that not allowing burials is having a negative effect on social cohesion and, more importantly, could also adversely impact the measures for containing the spread of the virus as it may discourage people to access medical care when they have symptoms or history of contact,” wrote Hanaa Singer, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, in a letter to the Rajapaksa government in November.

The international scrutiny Sri Lanka is now under adds to the diplomatic pressure it is expected to face in early 2021, when its postwar record will be in the spotlight at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. “The members of the OIC have traditionally backed Sri Lanka or abstained when there were resolutions critical of the country at the UNHRC,” said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, a civil society network. “But Sri Lanka may not be assured of such support in Geneva next year because of the enforced cremations.”

The nearly 30-year civil war, which ended in May 2009, pitted government troops against the separatist Tamil Tigers. The conflict’s grim numbers include more than 100,000 people killed and over 23,000 missing, according to estimates.

For years, an international push for accountability — including in regard to grisly accounts of alleged war crimes committed by government troops and the separatists — has cast a shadow over Sri Lanka. Now the public backlash against the enforced cremations has laid bare a new layer of pain to the still unhealed wounds of Sri Lanka’s fragile, postwar peace.

The protests that have spread locally as well as in Western cities suggest the government’s forced cremations have kindled a sense of solidarity in a deeply polarized country. The participants come from across the country’s religious communities — Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, other Christians and Muslims. Their banners decry the country for being a graveyard for human rights.

A family member of a soldier who died in Sri Lanka’s civil war cries. The country, still grieving from its long conflict, is now dealing with a new layer of pain inflicted in the name of caution. © Reuters

Symbols of the interreligious solidarity that has taken shape against Rajapaksa are appearing. One is a small white cloth that protesters have begun to tie to the poles that surround the main cemetery in Colombo, where the body of the 20-day-old Muslim baby was forcefully cremated. The white cloths symbolize the white shrouds that the bodies of dead Muslims are buried in. White is also the color of the clothing people wear at non-Muslim funerals.

Some demonstrators wear strips of white cloth around a wrist. The idea of the white-cloth protests was conceived by a Christian and Hindu, both in their 20s.

“This issue has grown beyond Muslim circles,” said Ruki Fernando, a prominent Catholic human rights activist. “There is more solidarity and consciousness, and this discontent will add to the fire the government may face at the U.N. in Geneva.”



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About 232 out of 500 escapees from K’kadu Drug Rehab Centre arrested

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Two hundred and thirty two inmates out of the 500, who escaped from the Kandakadu Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre, yesterday morning, following a clash with soldiers guarding the facility, had been arrested, Maj. Gen. Darshana Hettiarachchi, Commissioner General – Rehabilitation, said.

Hettiarachchi denied allegations from certain quarters that they had allowed inmates to escape to divert public attention away from the burning economic issues, and crippling fuel shortages.

He said an impartial inquiry would be conducted into the death of an inmate.

Hettiarachchi said that they were confident that other escapees too would be arrested soon.

Police Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa said a 36-year-old inmate had died under mysterious circumstances on Tuesday. The deceased was a resident of Mutwal. The death of the inmate had been reported to the Welikanda police, he said.

The Police Spokesman added that a team of policemen from Welikanda had visited the Rehabilitation Centre. However, a large number of inmates had surrounded the body and did not allow anyone near it and that had led to a clash between inmates and the military personnel at the centre.

At around 8 am yesterday, a large group of inmates had broken the two main gates and escaped, he added.

The Police Spokesman said that the police and Army had brought the situation under control, after several hours.

They have also launched a joint operation to arrest the inmates, who are still at large.

There are around 1,000 drug addicts being rehabilitated at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Center at any given time.

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Women parliamentarians’ Caucus calls for greater accountability and transparency

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International Day of Parliamentarism

Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle says accountability and transparency in a parliamentary system have become vital issues as the country makrs the International Day of Parliamentarism today (30).

In a statement issued to the media by the Caucus, Dr Fernandopulle said: International Day of Parliamentarism, which recognises the role of parliaments in national plans and strategies and in ensuring greater transparency and accountability at national and global levels. This Day was first established by the UN General Assembly through a resolution adopted in 2018 which also marked the 129th anniversary of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU, which was first established on the same day in the year 1889, is a global organization that works to promote ‘democratic governance, human representation, democratic values, and the civil aspirations of a society’.

This Day further solidifies the unique and enduring system of parliamentary democracy as the standard for political representation. Last year, in 2021, the Day focused on “Youth Empowerment” in Parliament whereas the theme for the International Day of Parliamentarism 2022 is “Public Engagement”. Conspicuously, the word ‘parliament’ originates from the French word ‘parler,’ which means ‘to talk.’ Thus, public discourse and engagement lay the very foundation of the parliamentary system of governance.

At a juncture where public engagement in the democratic process is at an all-time high, the theme for International Day of Parliamentarism aptly suits the current democratic and economic discourse taking place in society.

The Parliament is a cornerstone of any democracy as it must fulfill its fundamental role of providing a voice to the voiceless. The main responsibilities of a Parliament include the formulation, enactment and overseeing of the implementation of laws and policies that are sustainable and crucial for the progression and stability of the country. The Parliament also has a duty to hold the Executive or Government of the country accountable. Accordingly, representing the interests of the public, it must also fulfill the role of acting as a “check” to “balance” the power that the executive holds.

The Parliament must also perform “checks” and “balances” on Government expenditure as it has the responsibility of approving budgets for Government expenditure. Thus, during this economic crisis, the Parliament of Sri Lanka has a crucial role to play and effectively realize such roles and responsibilities. To do so meaningfully, public engagement is a necessity.

Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle said: “I believe we should make this Day an occasion to remember the importance of accountability and transparency in a parliamentary system. The Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus recognizes that it has a role to play in initiating a conversation towards realizing a process by which the Parliament can conduct self-evaluation utilising the feedback received by the public discourse. This would be vital in order to gauge the progress the Parliament has made and identify challenges and devise strategies and mechanisms to overcome such challenges to be more representative of the voices of people.”

MP Thalatha Atukorale said: “In the face of crisis, if our parliamentary system fails to realize its purpose, then we must re-evaluate the practices of our Parliament. Therefore, I believe that this Day should be used as an opportunity to formulate an effective strategy to improve transparency and accountability of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.”

MP Diana Gamage said: “On this Day, I pledge to be a voice to the people of Sri Lanka, particularly the more vulnerable, and play my role in initiating mechanisms and formulating laws that reflect the current needs of the people of Sri Lanka whom we are representing in Parliament”.

Parliament is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. In Sri Lanka, let us realise this goal for all Sri Lankans, leaving no stone unturned to ensure quality of political representation, which means gender equality and social inclusion too.

MP Manjula Dissanayake said: “To be effective and successful, the Parliamentary system must encourage public engagement and must also be based on principles of equality and inclusivity in order to better comprehend and prioritise the needs of the public”.

Vice-Chairperson of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, MP Rohini Kumari Wijeratne said: “The parliamentary system is founded upon the sovereignty of people. Therefore, the success of the parliamentary system depends on public engagement in the democratic process and how well the parliamentary system responds to such public engagement.”

MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya said: “We as Parliamentarians must not be oblivious to the fact that the public has lost confidence in the Sri Lankan Parliament and by extension, the Parliamentarians. A strong contention can be and is being made that the Parliament of Sri Lanka falls short of effectively realizing one of its main purposes: to formulate and implement policies and laws that benefits ALL people, particularly the more vulnerable. To meet that end, we must harness public discourse and engagement.”

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Proposals to revive agriculture sector unveiled

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By Ifham Nizam

The Department of Agriculture has handed over proposals with an action plan for the revival of the agriculture sector to the Minister of Agriculture, Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation, Mahinda Amaraweera.

Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture Rohana Pushpakumara, Director General of the Department of Agriculture, Ajantha de Silva, and its Directors, representing respective divisions, were also present.

The focus of the proposals is on the importation of chemical fertilisers and organic farming, increasing rice production in the country, promoting the cultivation of indigenous crops for export, taking measures to meet the national vegetable and fruit demand, prioritizing agricultural research and development, and other agricultural Inputs.

The proposals also deal with a number of other issues such as the misuse of pesticides and fertilisers.

The proposals consist of 11 short-term plans to uplift agriculture.

Speaking at the event, the Minister of Agriculture, Mahinda Amaraweera, requested that the proposals, aimed at increasing the income of the farming community, be implemented without delay and that everyone be committed to make the Yala season, and the forthcoming Maha season, a success. “We must make the current Yala and the next Maha season a success. The country’s economy depends on the stability of the agriculture sector.

The Director General of the Department of Agriculture handed over the relevant proposal to the Minister.

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