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UN Resident Coordinator’s missive to PM and what an ordinary Sri Lankan thinks about it

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By Rohana R. Wasala

UN Resident Coordinator Ms Hanaa Singer’s outrageously meddlesome missive offering unsolicited advice on governance (November 12, 2020) to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, with copies to the Minister of Foreign Relations Mr Dinesh Gunawardane, and Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous  Medicine Pavithra Wanniarachchi hasn’t still elicited an official response from the Government; neither has it drawn any comment from the Opposition, at least by the time of writing. But concerned Buddhist monks and lay activists and other ordinary citizens who really care about the country, active  in the social media, have already expressed strong disapproval of what they consider to be her brash overstepping of the legitimate boundaries of diplomatic protocol relating to her job in Sri Lanka as an employee of the United Nations. They are within their rights for they are the well informed nationals of the democratic Sri Lankan state, where every citizen has an inviolable claim to a share in its sovereignty, and can question the legitimacy of words and actions of a non-citizen of whatever capacity who seems to dictate terms to the least of them, let alone to those lawfully and democratically elected to execute sovereign power on behalf of all the citizens. 

 Ms Hanaa Singer is the most senior UN official in Sri Lanka. When she presented her credentials to the then president Mr Maithripala Sirisena in September 2018, she assumed duties in a dual capacity as UN’s Resident Coordinator and UN’s Development Programme Resident Representative for Sri Lanka. However, as a result of a UN reform process in January 2019, the second job was given to another UN functionary, and since then Ms Singer has held only the key post of UN’s Resident Coordinator for Sri Lanka. In that capacity, she leads the UN Country Team of 22 Resident and Non-Resident UN  Agencies. She represents the UN Secretary-General in Sri Lanka.

 Before her assignment to Colombo Ms Singer held a number of senior managerial positions in the UNICEF offices across the globe, particularly in Asia and Africa. She was Associate Regional Director UNICEF Geneva; she was Country Representative for UNICEF in Syria, Nepal, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Ms Singer also led humanitarian programmes in Burundi and Haiti, and managed cross border operations including those to Afghanistan and Iraq. Ms Singer claims nearly thirty years of experience with the UN. As she comes from Egypt, she may be expected to be familiar with the problem of Islamic extremism that is  plaguing the whole world. An estimated 90% of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are Sunnis, with a small minority of Shia Muslims, and an even smaller minority of officially unrecognized Ahmadis. 

 Until recently, the majority of the mainstream traditional Muslims used to be Sufis who were sufficiently, almost seamlessly, integrated into the very tolerant Buddhist and Hindu cultural communities. Unfortunately, that peaceful religious coexistence is being threatened by the recent incursions of Salafist and Wahhabist extremists allegedly sponsored by Sunni Islamist Saudi Arabia. The 2019 April Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings which killed over 250 and injured more than 500 innocent men, women, and chidren, leaving some maimed for life, were carried out by some young Muslim suicide bombers who had been indoctrinated and trained by these extremist ideologists. There is a danger of such extremists exploiting the volatile sensitivities of sorrow stricken Muslims in this Covid-19 situation who, like people of other religions, are in need of emotional succour and are looking towards the traditional source that provides it.

 While expressing her/UN’s readiness ‘to provide any relevant support on this matter’ (the burial problem), Ms Hanaa Singer tells the PM that ‘dignified handling of bodies of persons dead of Covid-19 virus has been an important part of the COVID-19 response’ (as if he is unaware of this). What material support can she provide on the burial matter? She reiterates ‘the concern of the United Nations with the existing Ministry of Health guidelines which stipulate cremation as the only method for the disposal of bodies suspected of COVID-19 infection’. Why should the UN be ‘concerned’ about the Health Ministry guidelines which order the cremation of bodies of persons scientifically confirmed dead of COVID-19? It is not a case of disposing of bodies ‘suspected of COVID-19 infection’. Ms Hanaa’s ‘concern’ reveals her  unfounded suspicion that the government is abusing this situation to discriminate against Muslims. The government and the rest of the population have other prob;ems to worry about.

 Ms Singer refers to WHO circulars issued on March 24, 2020 and later the claim that ‘…..based on current knowledge of the symptoms of Covid-19 and its main modes of transmission (droplets/contact), the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low….’. This sort of harebrained wisdom, though it comes from the WHO (which is also manned by ordinary mortals), is unacceptable in a lethal situation. Let’s take a domestic example. Suppose you have a child who is allergic to peanuts, and that once, feeding him a peanut containing yoghurt almost killed him. Now, a friendly visitor brings him a chocolate. But before giving it to him you check whether it is safe for him, so you look at the wrapper and read the cautionary information printed there: it says ‘This product may have traces of peanut oil’. Will you allow your child to eat the chocolate? No, at all. Why expose your child’s health, or even his life to danger for the sake of a chocolate?  In the current pandemic situation, while obeying the broad WHO guidelines, each country must adopt measures that best suit local conditions as determined by qualified local experts, not by interfering politicians or diplomats. Burial of infected bodies in the current situation is dangerous because of its potential for contamination of the aquifers, which, in most parts of the country are quite shallow. In Sri Lanka, around 80% of the population in the villages and some people even in Colombo and suburbs obtain their drinking water from wells.The Covid-19 virus is a dangerous new virus which is still being studied by scientists. If the expert scientific opinion right now is that there is a real danger or even a likelihood (be it high or low) of groundwater contamination with this deadly virus as a result of burying corpses of Covid-19 victims, then religious sentiment will give way to science in any civilised country where the vast majority of people depend on groundwater for drinking  and other domestic purposes. This applies equally to people of all faiths. 

 It is not only the Muslims who traditionally only bury their dead; Christians also do. Buddhists and Hindus either bury or cremate, though they prefer the latter mode of disposing of the dead, after the performance of elaborate funeral rites, which in the case of Hindus take the longest time to complete among the four religious communities. They also feel as acutely as Muslims do in situations of bereavement.

 Apparently forgetting this Ms Singer warns our Prime Minister: ‘In the same context, I deem it important to inform you that I have received impassioned appeals from within and outside the Muslim community that perceive the current policy on burials as discriminatory. Against this background, 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 where they have symptoms or (a) history of contact.’  

 Instead of so undiplomatically lecturing to the PM, Ms Singer, should have educated the Muslims and others who, she says, appealed to her for undue intervention in a domestic nonissue like this about the fact that subjecting Muslims and others to the same health guideline which makes cremation mandatory is not discrimination and that the Sri Lankan leaders are not so mean or so lacking in selfconfidence as to make the Covid-19 pandemic emergency a pretext for discriminating against a minority. Ms Singer, it is not ‘not allowing burials (that) is having a negative effect on social cohesion’, it is cases of unwarranted intervention like yours that tend to destroy Sri Lanka’s social cohesion.

 Her parting shot is: ‘I recognize that during epidemics, for reasons of public health, Governments often need to take difficult, and at times unpopular measures. However, in this case, the negative consequences of not allowing burials seem to outweigh any potential epidemiological benefit. Considering the evidenced-based (sic) guidance of World Health Organization, as well as the commitments of the Government of Sri Lanka to uphold the rights of all communities, I therefore express my hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVOD-19 victims’. In view of what I have written above, Ms Singer’s argument has little merit here. It only shows her own bias. How justified is she in allowing her personal biases to get in her way of judgement in the performance of her duties as an international civil servant who is certainly not a plenipotentiary?

 Articles 1 and 2 are described under Chapter 1 of the Charter of the United Nations signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 (Kindle version of the UN Charter published in the US by Praetorian Press, LLC  2011)  which deals with the purposes and principles that determine its mandate. Article 1 is about maintaining international peace and security through collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace, to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends, etc. The ‘international’ nature of the UN’s responsibility should not be forgotten. The UN cannot poke its nose into a country’s internal affairs on somebody’s whim.

 Article 2 stipulates the principles in accordance which the purposes stated in Article 1 are to be pursued: Item No 1 of Article 2 states the crucial principle of the sovereign equality of the member states: ’The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members’. This and the other six principles specified in Article 2 implicitly emphasize the necessity for the UN as a single body and for all its individual members to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of member states. Items 4, 5, and 7 of Article 2 are especially important in this connection. 

 However, the important Item No 7 contains an exception to the observance of this principle.  Here is Item No 7 in full: ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII’. When we read Chapter VII (i.e., Articles 39-51), it becomes clear that for any intervention or interference (which should only be of a non-military kind – such as, in the form of travel embargoes, trade sanctions, etc.) to be imposed, the unsettling domestic issues must be on a scale that calls for UN Security Council involvement. The burial (non)issue is not likely to assume such importance. 

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Opinion

Amend Cabinet decision on new Rajagiriya – Nawala Canal bridge

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The Cabinet, at its meeting held on 09.11.2020 granted approval for the construction of a new bridge across the Rajagiriya-Nawala Canal (Kolonnawa Canal), connecting Angampitiya Road, at Ethul kotte, and School Lane, at Nawala.

As a resident of Nawala, I would like to make two proposals in this regard. One is to reconsider the suitability of the proposed link between School Lane and Angampitiya Road to connect Nawala with Ethul Kotte. The second is to make an additional link between Narahenpita and Nawala, by constructing a new bridge across the Kinda Canal, which flows past the Wall-Tile Showroom on the Nawala-Narahenpita Road and the McDonald’s outlet at Rajagiriya. This will provide a direct access from Narahenpita to Ethul Kotte, and at the same time avoiding congestion on Kirimandala Mawatha and Parliament Road, during peak hours.

The decision to construct a bridge, linking Nawala and Ethul Kotte, is commendable, but the selection of the site for the bridge needs reconsideration. Once Ethul Kotte is linked with Nawala, through Angampitiya Road, and School Lane, one would expect a substantial increase in the volume of traffic on these two roads. Located on School Lane is the Janadhipathi Balika Vidyalaya, a popular girls’ school in the area. Even at present, the area around School Lane has heavy traffic comprising mostly school vans and other vehicles bringing children to and from this school, in the mornings and afternoons. Linking School Lane with Ethul Kotte will make this traffic situation worse, causing congestion.

A better option is to connect Ethul Kotte with Nawala, by constructing a bridge, linking New Jayaweera Mawatha in Ethul Kotte, with Koswatta Road, in Nawala. A by-lane, branching off from the Koswatta Road leading up to the canal, at an appropriate location, could be used for this purpose. On this link, only a short distance of roadway about 250 m, needs to be developed, whereas the School Lane extension needs development of at least 700 m of roadway. Earlier, motorists used Koswatta Road as a shortcut to access Parliament Road. Now, turning right, at the Parliament Road junction, is not permitted, and hence, there isn’t much traffic on this road at present.

One advantage of extending the Koswatta Road, to Ethul Kotte is that it could be linked in the other direction, with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, on the Narahenpita side, providing a direct route for motorists coming along Thimbirigasyaya Road to go to Ethul Kotte. With this link, it will be possible for traffic to avoid both Parliament Road and Chandra de Silva Mawatha, Nugegoda, the only two access roads to Kotte, from Colombo, available at present.

To complete this access, it is necessary to construct a bridge across Kinda Canal, linking Galpotta Road with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, after extending both roadways up to the canal. This area is still not developed, except for a reservation made for a playground on the Nawala side. A new roadway, which is only about half a km distance, is necessary, and this could be built without any problem linking these two roadways. Galpotta Road could be linked with Koswatta Road via Ratanajothi Mawatha, which crosses the Rajagiriya–Nawala Road, at Koswatta Junction.

The construction of these two new bridges, one across Kolonnawa Canal and the other across Kinda Canal, will provide a direct route from Colombo to Ethul Kotte, via Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, Galpotta Road, Koswatta Road and New Jayaweera Mawatha. This link will reduce congestion, at present experienced on Kirimandala Road and Parliament Road.

 

Dr JANAKA RATNASIRI

Nawala

 

 

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Opinion

A tribute to my mother-in-law

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Appreciation

My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.

It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.

In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.

To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.

Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.

Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.

This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.

 

By Harim Peiris

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Opinion

The Benefits of Homeschooling

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COVID-19 has changed our normal activities. What we were used to doing in 2019, is no longer a routine in 2020. In the midst of this pandemic the schools were closed down, and the decision to reopen schools by the Sri Lankan government and the trade unions speaking against it, made me ponder on an alternative.

Education in developing countries have often been a sensitive topic, Parents would leave no stone unturned to put their child to a ‘Big School’. How many of the classrooms in ‘Big Schools’ are capable of making seating arrangements by keeping a distance of one meter in accordance with the COVID-19 regulations?

Online Teaching has been introduced as an alternative, but isn’t there something better than that?

This would be the best time to introduce Homeschooling.

Homeschooling is where parents and guardians teach and groom their children. There are many parents capable of handling children and providing a comfortable atmosphere at home for a child to grow up and learn; there are parents who are skilled in particular trades and crafts, and teaching these to their children at a younger age gives the child an opportunity to be a skilled individual.

Several decades back the role of a Governess played an important role in upbringing children in Sri Lankan households. Many would have read about Helen Keller, a deaf and blind student who went on to be a graduate; she was groomed and taught by her governess Anne Sullivan, who taught her at home, this is a successful example of Homeschooling.

It is an arrogant attitude to scoff that parents groom their children into good citizens without sending them to school. Inferior Schooling and Teaching Methods have been a bane to a child’s psychology and mentally handicapping the confidence of a child. The truth is, schools no longer groom students, they have become Examination Centres, that judge the performance of their students through results.

It will be interesting to look into some of the criticisms made by sceptics on homeschooling. One is the subject knowledge of the parents; let’s be honest, how many of us use Titration in Chemistry in our daily lives, do we even want to try it? How many of us want to know the Chronology of the Kings that ruled the Country, has it ever disturbed us?

On the other hand, Homeschooling does not mean that teachers would no longer be needed, the teacher can play a broader role as a governess or a trainer to fill in the subject gaps that the parents are unable to provide for their child.

Another criticism is that children will not learn to socialise without schools. Isn’t Covid-19 regulations discouraging socialising by asking us to avoid public gatherings and maintaining a distance of 1 meter, isn’t socialising with a bad friend as disastrous as a deadly disease?

It will be interesting to see how the trade unions are going to respond to this if homeschooling becomes successful, as they will be the worst affected. But they could always become good Governesses or Subject Experts and play a guiding role in the homeschooling venture. This country now needs more Florence Nightingales to treat the sick and more Anne Sullivans to groom the kids.

 

HASALA PERERA

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