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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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MCC inconsistent with Constitution

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AG agrees with Prof. Gunaruwan report

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has informed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, Project Implementation Agreement, as well as Articles of Association of MCA (Millennium Challenge Act), Sri Lanka, are violative of cerain provisions of the Constitution.

The AG has said so in a 20-page report sent to Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President.

The President’s Office on Sept. 3, 2020, sought the AG’s opinion on the MCC Compact and related matters in the wake of the Cabinet-appointed Prof. Gunaruwan Committee strongly advising against going ahead with the US initiative. The US sought Sri Lanka’s consent for the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and MCC. The previous government finalised ACSA in early August 2017.

Dr. Jayasundera made available the Gunaruwan report to the AG.

The outgoing US administration in Dec 2020 announced Sri Lanka had been left out of the MCC project.

AG’s Coordinating Officer State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne confirmed the MCC et al were inconsistent with the Constitution and other laws.

The Island,

 however, learns that the AG’s Department on two previous occasions, in letters dated Oct 10, 2018 and June 10, 2019, addressed to Jonathan G. Nash, Chief Operating Officer, MCC, and Director General, External Resources Department, respectively, asserted that the Compact and the Programme Implementation Agreement (PIA) were in line with the Sri Lankan law.

The first letter was sent during Jayantha Jayasuriya’s tenure as the AG and the second under incumbent AG without his approval, sources said. Dappula de Livera succeeded Jayasuriya in April 2019 about a week after the April 21 Easter Sunday carnage. Jayasuriya is the incumbent Chief Justice.

Prof. Gunaruwan’s Committee soon after the last presidential election in Nov 2019 failed to obtain the AG’s Department opinion in spite of making representations through the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the run-up to 2019 parliamentary election, then Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the Attorney General had approved the US project though the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) called it a sell-out.

The following is the text of the letter dated Oct 10, 2018 captioned ‘Legal Status of Proposed MCC Compact signed by Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, Senior Additional Solicitor General, addressed to Jonathan G. Nash, Chief Operating Officer, MCC:

“I refer to your communication dated 27th September, 2018 in respect of the above captioned matter. In this regard, I am made to understand that the delegation from the Government of Sri Lanka was able to have fruitful discussion with the Millennium Challenge Corporation Team in resolving some of the outstanding issues.

“Having gleaned through the proposed Millennium Challenge Compact, the draft Program Implementation Agreement (PIA) as well as the Points of Discussion (without prejudice) between the negotiating parties which has been made available to me, I wish to at the very outset opine that no existing laws of Sri Lanka inhibit the Compact and the PIA being implemented in Sri Lanka. If I may elucidate further, the covenants of the Compact and the PIA do not infringe any existing domestic law or any previous undertakings given by the Government of Sri Lanka. It is acknowledged that the Compact imposes legal obligations on both parties to the Agreement

“Further, consequent to the negotiations and discussions had between parties, it is proposed that the Government of Sri Lanka would seek the passage of a law in Parliament to establish the MCA- Sri Lanka as a non-profit Company limited by guarantee under the Companies Act No.07 of 2007 to implement the provisions of the Compact. It is envisaged that the proposed enactment would encompass the Compact and the PIA as Annexures, which would form an integral part of this enactment.

“Thus, I am of the view that the passage of the said enactment by Parliament would result in the Compact and the PIA, having the parity of status of a domestic law in Sri Lanka.

“In the Context of the above, it is requisite that Section 7.1 of Article 7 of the Compact referring to the provisions on Entry Into Force, would be revised with the deletion of the sentence pertaining to the Compact prevailing over the domestic laws of Sri Lanka.

“However, in order to assuage any concerns with regard to the implementation of the Compact, by an unlikely event of a legislation in the future which may impinge or infringe the said compact, upon notification by the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media (the relevant Ministry) of this fact, a legal opinion would be tendered that the proposed legislation if proceeded with would violate the covenants of the Compact. This would enable the relevant Ministry to forward its observations to the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament, that the Attorney-General has opined that the proposed Bill if enacted would violate the Compact.

“In the circumstances, I believe that the aforementioned matters would confirm the legal status of the Compact and its entry into force.”

“Copies were sent to Ms. Caroline Nguyen, Managing Director- Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America Millennium Challenge Corporation and J. Charitha Ratwatte, Head of Policy Development and Chief of Party MCC- Sri Lanka Project.”

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Environmentalist accuses Govt. of resorting to trickery to hand over 800,000 acres to pvt. companies

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ is a psychological operation to counter people’s resistance to a move to hand over chena and grasslands to large companies, environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara said yesterday.

Chamikara claimed that the government had earmarked 800,000 acres of land to be given to corporations, and those lands would mainly consist of forests and areas used for chena cultivations and to feed cattle by small scale farmers.

“The Gama Samaga Pilisandara is an attempt to misguide the people by giving them false promises. The government tells people they could cultivate lands belonging to the Forest Conservation Department and instructs officials not to punish people who send cattle into forests. People walk away feeling good but a few months later they will find that these same lands handed over to big companies.”

They had conducted a survey on the lands that had been given to corporations by the government during 2020 Most of those lands in fact were those used by cattle herders and chena cultivators, he said.

For example 70,000 acres in Demaliya and Wandama were being given to a company engaged in sugarcane cultivation, and almost all those lands were those used by small scale farmers and cattle herders, Chamikara said. Among the lands that were given were those earmarked for those displaced by the Uma Oya project. The previous administrations tried to provide irrigation water to those lands through the Handapanagala scheme.

Chamikara said: “Another 62,000 acres have been earmarked in Moneragala, Ampara and Badulla districts for sugarcane cultivation. 80% of these lands are chena cultivations. In Rambaken Oya 5,426 acres have been earmarked for 15 companies to carry out various agro projects and most of these lands are now used by small scale cattle herders. Recently, the Department of Agriculture wrote to the Forest Conservation Department requesting that 80,000 acres in Moneragala, Anuradhapura and Badulla districts be released. These lands are to be used for corn cultivation. The Forest Conservation Department then asked the Department of Agriculture to identify the lands and we know that these lands for the most part are those used by small scale cattle herders and chena cultivators.”

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Contempt of Court case against GMOA President re-fixed for hearing on March 03 and 10

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By Chitra Weerarathne

The Court of Appeal yesterday re-fixed for hearing on March 3 and March 10, the Contempt of Court application against the President of the Government Medical Officers’ Association Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya.

Counsel Ravindranath Dabare said that his client Dr. Padeniya was under self-quarantine and was unable to attend Court.

Dr. Padeniya was summoned for Contempt of Court under Article 105/3 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka for allegedly having criticised a Superior Court ruling in respect of the admission of students to the Sri Lanka Institute of Technology and Medicine, Malabe, at a public rally on April 7, 2016, disrespecting a Supreme Court order pertaining to the enrolment of a student in the Private Medical College, which will ultimately lead to an MBBS degree.

The Court of Appeal bench comprised Justice Arjuna Obeysekera (President) and Dr. Mayadunne Corea.

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