Last week, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa assured in Parliament that the government would soon permit the burial of Muslims who died of Covid-19. “The dead will be allowed to be buried,” he quipped in response to a question by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP, S.M Marikkar.
Some of his acolytes have since tried to twist his words, that the Premier had only referred to the dead (the burial of which does not require government permission) and not necessarily the COVID-related fatalities. That was after the PMs assurance was welcomed by several local and foreign leaders, including the Pakistani Premier Imran Khan, who is due to arrive in Colombo on February 22 on a two-day state visit, and several Western diplomats in Colombo.
Jokers aside, certain saner voices in the government have conceded that the Premier indeed gave the green light for the burial of Muslims who died of Covid-19. State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control, Sudharshani Fernandopulle told the House that the final decision would be referred to an expert committee of the Health Ministry. That, however, sounds less convincing for many who believe that the institutional integrity and independence has deteriorated under the current government. Add to that, the head of the expert committee, Prof. Jeniffer Perera has told media that the committee had recommended the burial in December last year. And, the WHO also did so long before under its Covid related guidelines.
It is not sudden scientific awakening that is behind the government’s U-turn on the compulsory cremation policy - and there is still likelihood that it would stick to the old practice, if the nationalist monks and other fellow travellers – and not the doctors - growled.
The trigger for the re-think was Imran Khan’s visit, he has faced domestic criticism for visiting Sri Lanka, and local Muslims have banked on him to speak up for their right to bury their Covid-dead. Khan, who has fallen out with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s other traditional financer, next to China, over the Modi- friendly Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s refusal to summon a meeting of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to condemn India over Kashmir, is vying for allies in the Muslim world. His personal calculations to cast himself as a leader of the Muslim world makes it hard for him to gloss over the local Muslim concerns over the mandatory cremation. He is expected to deliver a speech in Parliament during his visit. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa made things easier for the visiting Pakistani Premier and his host.
The trigger for the re-think was Imran Khan’s visit, he has faced domestic criticism for visiting Sri Lanka, and local Muslims have banked on him to speak up for their right to bury their Covid-dead
Another mounting concern was that Sri Lanka is having fewer international friends who are willing to speak on its behalf than before. It’s standing among the Muslim world is on a rapid downward spiral. This government has skillfully squandered the sympathy and solidarity Sri Lanka received from the Muslim world after the Easter Sunday attacks. Now that the country is under the scrutiny and imminent censure at the UNHRC, it is badly in need of friends. The government might also expect the Premier’s assurance to address some concerns cited in the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
However, the controversy over funeral rites of the Muslims should not have arisen in the first place. The government created it through its exclusivist majoritarian approach, which relegated minority interests. That the ethnic minorities had to rely on a visit by a foreign leader and a UNHRC session in order to secure a basic accommodation that was available for the Muslims across the world (except China) does not augur well for the country, which is being viewed in the light of the borderline racist policies of the government. These policies have left Sri Lanka weaker and with fewer friends in the international arena - though they are only the tip of- iceberg. The self-destructive foreign policy irrationality in snubbing of India, Japan and the United States ( Eastern Container Terminal, Light Rail, Millenium Challenge Grant) would have long term consequences.
Nutcases who double as ideologues of this government are now having a field day. They scorned even the slightest accommodation of minority interests, ditched the singing of National Anthem in Tamil, and recently even made representations to change the national flag. It is their borderline bigotry that manifests in the government’s policy on ethnic relations.
These policies have also made the country divided, fractured and teeming with minority disgruntlement. Exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian policies have not only created new grievances, but they also threaten to push the minority communities to the fringes of ethnic nationalism and religious fanatism. There exists a sizeable reserver of minority exclusivism and religious extremism in this country. The Dravidian social-political exclusivism and propped up grievances were exploited to turn Tamil youth into suicide bombers, and Wahhabism, until the Easter Sunday attacks was loudly defended by some quarters of local Muslims.
The government’s Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian policies that are pursued at the expense of legitimate minority interests are pushing some quarters of the minority communities to these fringes. That journey is incremental, just like Vadukkodoai resolution did not come to light overnight, but its ripple effects fomented the nihilistic terrorist struggle that lasted for the next three decades.
We might be at the beginning of another such fateful journey as Tamils and Muslims are forging a partnership to fight for their rights. The march held last week by the members of the two communities from the Eastern town of Pottuvil to Poligandy in the North is heralded as the first course of action of the collective front. Tamil media widely reported the event, and Sinhalese and English media pretty much skipped it. Foreign diplomats twitted about it, and social media warriors and civil society actors lauded it. However, there is a difference between being anti-government, which many would consider this writer is - and anti-Sri Lankan. The timing of the ‘P2P’ protest - the independence day - and the affiliations of some of the most vocal organizers and civil society groups behind it, which were recasted from former LTTE affiliated civil society groups in the Wanni - make me think this protest is anti-Sri Lankan, rather than anti-government.
As the government’s international stature weakens, and traditional Muslims and Tamils are loaded with a new sense of grievances and persecution, these groups would be the only winner. They feed on these grievances, and then one day, history would repeat itself.
This government’s majoritarian policies are pursued supposedly in the name of the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. Rather, they render a great disservice to the Sinhalese majority themselves. It makes Sinhalese distrust minorities and vice versa and makes all communities less secure. Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East are compelled to fend off the criticism of the racist policies of their government - that is while the repatriation of stranded Sri Lankans itself has become a money-spinner for some of the pro-government businessmen.
The upcoming UN Human Rights Resolution sponsored by the core nations on Sri Lanka would up the ante, and the government would, in turn, whip up Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalism. The perceived discrimination of minorities would provide an excuse for international meddling. Amit Shah, Modi’s right- hand man, BJP strategist and the interior minister had reportedly said that India would make the future government in Sri Lanka. PM Modi himself told a rally in Chennai last week that India would uphold Tamil rights in Sri Lanka.
This government through the borderline racism of its policies are making Sri Lanka vulnerable at home and abroad.
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