The efforts to restrict the spread of the Covid virus continues in Sri Lanka with the state agencies that are at the forefront of this work giving of their best at great risk to themselves. However, the prolonged 24 hour non-stop curfew and accompanying lockdown are also becoming more difficult for the general population to cope with. In situations of crisis, there is a temptation to find a common enemy which can take communal overtones. There are hate stories on the social media that members of a particular community are responsible for most of the Covid infections, which has been articulated even in the mainstream media. This is a continuation of a phenomenon that has been gathering in strength and which peaked with the Easter bombing by Islamic extremists.
Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented crisis due to the COVID-19 virus. The government has taken firm and decisive actions on an emergency basis. These include the imposition of a 24 hour curfew that is now entering its fourth week in some areas continuously. The National Peace Council expresses its appreciation for those at the front lines of COVID mitigation efforts of the government, especially those in the medical profession, the security forces, the public service and those in essential services including private sector food and medicine logistical services who have been deployed for this task, and to the political leadership that is doing what is difficult in the national interest.
The presidential pardon given to an army soldier convicted and sentenced to death by the courts of law, including the Supreme Court, has generated severe criticism from political parties, human rights organisations and citizens groups. The eight killings for which this soldier was convicted were particularly brutal and included three children under the age of 18 with one being only five years old. The pardon is unacceptable because the events relating to the conviction do not even fall into the category of collateral damage, often used as a justification for civilian deaths on the battle field.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised serious questions about the capacity of the current political and economic systems in many states to deal with a crisis of this nature. Sri Lanka, along with the rest of the world, is in an unprecedented crisis of enormous magnitude that has to be overcome with cooperation, solidarity and collective action. There has to be cooperation across all strata and groups with people helping people, especially those who are marginalised, daily wage earners and persons with disabilities who have no place to go. Sri Lanka has long prided itself as having an educated population. This is the time to show the world that our understanding of the crisis is real, and even as the lockdown and curfew continue, that we are willing to abide by the strictest measures necessary to control its spread.
A set of guidelines issued by the Mullaitivu District Secretariat to all non-governmental organisations working in the district has notified them that their work should be focused on infrastructure development and not on soft skill training. Examples of the latter that are provided are women’s empowerment, child rights, youth training, human rights, land rights training, and formation and strengthening of self-help groups. The district secretariat has said that action plans of organisations that contain “less than 70 percent of physical infrastructure activities, such as construction of rural roads, wells and preschools, will not receive its approval”, which may be an indication of the district’s needs rather than a policy statement.
Sri Lanka’s government is presently facing a major challenge with the US government designating army commander General Shavendra Silva for alleged gross violations of human rights and imposing a travel ban on him and his family. This is a continuation of a regime of international sanctions against Sri Lanka on the grounds of its unwillingness to deal with unresolved issues of the last phase of the war, including those of missing persons and accountability for human rights violations. In September last year the UN suspended Sri Lankan Army deployments in its peacekeeping operations after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed General Silva as army commander accusing him of command responsibility for serious human rights violations.
An issue that has surfaced and which is causing heartburn among Tamil-speaking citizens is the likelihood that the national anthem will not be sung in Tamil at the forthcoming National Independence Day celebrations on February 4. Government members have been making contradictory statements on this issue. Some of them have openly declared that the national anthem will not be sung in Tamil on this occasion whereas Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that no final decision has been taken on this matter. The National Peace Council is concerned about the government’s delay in taking a decision on this issue. Adding to our concerns is the provocative action of a government minister who went to the predominantly Tamil-speaking north and ordered the name board of an institution under his ministry to be redone so that the Sinhala wording comes on top and the Tamil wording below it.
The celebration of Christmas took place without incident and in the manner that Christians in Sri Lanka have traditionally done. This was a success of governance as there were security warnings due to the Easter bombings that caused heavy loss of life to Christians at worship in three of their churches. The government made arrangements for enhanced security to ensure that there was no recurrence of such acts of violence or terrorism. The National Peace Council appreciates the security and freedom enjoyed by all communities to celebrate their special occasions in safety and live as equal citizens.
In his inaugural speech the newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave an assurance that he will be the president of all, including all ethnicities and religions and those who did not vote for him. This assurance is especially important as the recently concluded presidential election was divisive and along communal lines. The National Peace Council compliments the new president on his positive sentiments and wishes him all success in making them come true. In particular, we will cooperate with his policies to promote peaceful coexistence and reconciliation as in the past.
Among the plethora of promises made by the presidential contestants is one that Sri Lanka will withdraw from the UNHRC resolution it co-signed in Geneva in 2015. This was an international commitment made in an assembly of 46 other countries. If Sri Lanka were to unilaterally withdraw from its commitments made to the UNHRC by rejecting the co-sponsored resolution, this is likely to have international repercussions that isolate the country. It will also create fear within the country that the negative practices of the past will re-emerge. The Sri Lankan state and successor governments need to respect international bodies and treaties and truly live up to its role as a member of a universal fraternity within a rules-based international order.