SRI Lanka is currently being discussed at the level of the UN Human Rights Council along with notorious countries such as North Korea, South Sudan and now Myanmar after its military coup. There is no question that it is unfair by the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan state to be bracketed with such countries. This has happened due to the failure of successive governments to deliver on pledges made to address the longstanding ethnic conflict and to repair the psychological and developmental damage caused by the three decades of terrorism and war. The present UNHRC resolution refers back to the pledges made by president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009 when UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon visited Sri Lanka at the end of the war.
Sri Lanka is today a different country to what it was a decade or more ago when the war was raging. A most significant feature of this change is the way in which people of different ethnicities and religions move together freely and without harassment in all parts of the country. There are exceptions, as there would be in any part of the world, but these are few and far between. There is visible unity in diversity which the Sri Lankan state’s social welfare delivery system epitomises. It reaches all sections of the people with some exceptions (Sathosa and Osu Sala are not in Batticaloa, for instance) and again, largely without any discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.
Last week I stood in line for several hours for a COVID-19 vaccination and so had a good opportunity to observe the ethos of people when placed under considerable strain. The line was long and moved slowly and the sun was bright overhead. However, the queue system was generally respected, though the inevitable SUV with dark tinted glasses periodically made their appearance and swift departure. After three hours those of us still standing in line were told that the vaccine was only being given to those resident from that specific area and the rest should leave. There was subsequent argument and rethinking and finally those from other areas were permitted to stay, although in a lower priority line. There was no discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender.
THERE are other accounts of COVID-19 vaccine queues and their travails. My experience was a positive one and reflective of what the Sri Lankan state can and must be to its people. Once those in line got through the gates, and there was no pressure to be a gatekeeper, the government staff were helpful to all. The soldiers inside were pleased to help the less literate citizens to fill in their forms. It is therefore understandable that the state officials who are dealing with the UNHRC in Geneva are getting irate with those from the international community they see as portraying the country to be on par with North Korea. Unfortunately, there is also another side to the Sri Lankan state that is also in evidence, and which needs to become more fair-minded in its approach to dealing with controversial issues.
Last week a cause of extreme grievance among the Muslim population of the country was finally mitigated when the first COVID-19 burials in nearly a year took place in a cemetery in the east. This was on land specially provided for that purpose by the local authority of Ottamavadi for the purpose of COVID-19 burials. This offer by the local authority and its acceptance by the national health authorities averted a potential cause for future conflict that had been brewing due to the government’s insistence on a cremation-only policy. The cremation-only policy had also put Sri Lankan in an unfavourable international light as possibly the only country in the world to enforce the cremation of COVID-19 victims.
The sense of grievance within the Muslim community in Sri Lanka was palpable and unified the community as no other issue would as it concerned their religion and their loved ones. This had the potential to become a festering sore in the body politic with the seeds of religious hatred ready to be planted and exploited by those who might have wished to set community against community for their own political benefit. The vested interests in keeping the issue alive was so strong that even ruling party parliamentarians were willing to openly contradict prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reassurance that burial would be permitted. This seemed to suggest that powerful forces wished to continue with the cremation-only policy notwithstanding its lack of support in science, religion and humaneness.
THE impression that there are forces within the government that are opposed to any relenting on the cremation-only policy was strengthened when the government took more than two weeks to operationalise the prime minister’s declaration that COVID-19 burials would be permitted. This was followed by the announcement that such burials would only be permitted on the islet of Iranaitivu off the northern coast. This small island has traditionally been inhabited totally by Tamil Catholics and is currently shared with a navy camp set up during the war. During most of the period of the war, the Tamil inhabitants of Iranaitivu had been displaced from their homes and could only return two years ago.
The selection of an islet for COVID-19 burials to be performed so far from the main places of inhabitation by the Muslim community who were the primary affected population made no sense. It made even less sense when the place selected to place a graveyard was one totally inhabited by Catholics. There seemed to be a perverse desire to set one minority community against another, in a replay of the Easter 2018 bombing where Muslim suicide bombers specifically targeted Catholic and Christian churches and killed 250 of them. In fact, last week was significant also for the unprecedented Black Sunday protest by the Catholic church against the inadequate investigation report on the Easter bombings which targets those who did not do enough to prevent it while saying nothing about those who masterminded the attack.
Fortunately, better sense has prevailed within the government and it has agreed that COVID-19 burials may take place in Ottamavadi in the east, which is a Muslim inhabited area, and where the local authority has itself offered its land for burial purpose. It is noteworthy that the government decision to permit the burial of COVID-19 victims has been accepted by the general public and there has been no public agitation against it. A conclusion that can be drawn is that the opposition to COVID-19 burial was an artificial one with a political motivation. It was not due to prejudice against one community from within the general population, which is also borne out by the way in which Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christian, and the 19 or more other ethnic and religious minorities coexist peacefully with one another, until some nationalist politicians find it opportune to divide them.
In considering constitutional reform at the present time, it may be relevant to consider the spirit of Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution under which Sri Lanka obtained independence to protect the country from the politics of narrow nationalism. The Soulbury Constitution prohibited the making of laws ‘that make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions.’ This spirit of non-discrimination and equality is present in the religious values that underpin our civilisation. They need to be affirmed by our national leaders. This may be same where other national issues are concerned when policies favouring one community or denying another are promoted by politicians who espouse narrow nationalism thereby undermining the pluralistic values shared in the community and country at large.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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