The Government at a crossroads with Covid -19 burials

By Lankathilaka

 

 

Wither Wimal Weerawansa?
Last week’s paada yatra a resounding success.
A host of issues burning bright for the UNHRC.  
Crudia zeylanica: another nail in the coffin of the country’s catalogue of environmental disasters.

 

Today, Wimal Weerawansa has become a household name among urban and rural Sri Lankans for all the wrong reasons.

Politics apart people dislike Weerawansa for his erratic behaviour.  A maverick politician he has so far been successful with his political chess games. After breaking away from the left-wing Janatha VimukthiPeramuna (JVP) he joined the centre-left UPFA/SLFP and the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) from time to time to further his political cause.

Wimal Weerawansa however found himself in hot water last week after he made a statement to a vernacular media newspaper that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be made the head of the political alliance to which his party is affiliated, which is the SLPP or better known as Pohottuwa (lotus bud), byreplacing its current leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This raised a hornets’ nest with many firing salvos at Weerawansa warning him to refrain from making unwarranted remarks concerning a respected and admired leader and that it is not his prerogative, as the leader of a smaller party, to talk about the SLPP, its policy or the formation of its hierarchical arrangement. The General Secretary of the SLPP SagaraKariyawasam was the first to accuse Weerawansa of misconduct and asked him to withdraw the statement and tender an apology to the people.

Political analysts are of the view that Kariyawasam had acted beyond his mandate as the General Secretary of the alliance.  They were emphatic that they do not understand Kariyawasam’s politics or political rhetoric calling upon a senior minister to tender an apology without proper assertions or inquiry by the hierarchy of the SLPP. Weerawansa in no uncertain terms dismissed Kariyawasam’s chides as childish.

Kariyawasam has no political maturity to handle intricate and critical issues since he is still a novice to politics but makes no qualms about his loyalty to the Rajapaksas’. In any case, he was walking a tight rope when he started his offensive since Weerawansa’s alleged statement to the newspaper has thrown a challenge to the members of the first family because it nearly resembled a double-edged sword. Many think that Karyawasam is being used as a pawn to test the ground.

After riding roughshod over many issues for years Weerawansa has gained political acumen, more than most of the middle-aged politicians in the ruling SLPP.  His cunning but clownish ways are quite transparent though he has mastered the art of how to get away after making ludicrous statements. The enraged politician then clarifies his position to justify his stand. On this occasion too, he says that he made these observations bearing in mind the outpourings which would be politically lethal to him, but in the best interests of the alliance. His contention was simple to him but preposterous to many in the SLPP.  Weerawansa clarifies what he said, that without keeping a capable President within his confines in the Presidential Secretariat, to appoint him to a higher position in the party. The idea that Weerawansa articulates is that the President could interact with the others and affiliate members of the alliance which would be beneficial to both parties i.e. the President and the affiliated partners of the alliance.

There had been a couple of minor skirmishes over the matter, but it was settled in no time, at times with the intervention of the Prime Minister himself. The Opposition meanwhile allege that it was yet another political melodrama to divert the attention of the masses from the appalling living conditions and the unabated Covid pandemic which is rampant in the hinterlands and the impending UNHRC sessions where the government may face severe difficulties owing to the onslaught expected to be launched by United Nations High commissioner for Human Rights.

Besides all these the Buddhist clergy who were vocal over the Eastern Container Terminal have maintained their silence for a while that is, until they come across yet another critical governance issue. In that sense, the Weerawansa issue appears to be political fodder for them. They made use of the opportunity to let their steam off about on whom they have reservations and at the same time to defend Weerawansa in a fresh bid to settle baffling issues in the SLPP. The clergy was critical of Kariyawasam and warned him that Weerawansa had contributed immensely to the rejuvenation of the SLPP after having organized the “Mahinda Sulanagaor Mahinda breeze to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back into the political saddle after his decisive defeat in 2015. Hence Kariyawasam fell victim to the verbal onslaught of the clergy making him the scapegoat.

Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda of the AbayramayaTemple, the refuge of the Rajapaksas following the 2015 defeat, came to the defence of Wimal Weerawansa and justified his position which could be described as a slap in the face of Kariyawasam.

In this backdrop Kariyawasm has to learn the eerie behaviour of Sri Lankan politics and the bitter truth that surrounds it before taking a plunge. Gone are the days of gentleman politics, the ilk of Dudley Senanayake, SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene,NM Perera etc who took the moral high ground in politics. Regrettably instead, we find a set of Buddhist monks and rustic and crude politicians who lack much-needed refinement making a foray into a political mainstay, mainly to make money.

If a matter similar to that of Wimal Weerawansa took place in the United National Front government, their political prognosis on the matter would have taken a different stance and it would have been dismissed without much ado. UNPers by nature are aware of those matters that are not worth pursuing.  More than anything, they will emphasize that they are a democratic entity which allows for a democratic space for differences of opinion to be brought out with a guarantee of freedom of expression for every member of any coalition group. It has to be noted there are people of different hues in the spectrum of a political alliance and therefore there cannot be any harm meted out to the alliance through the remarks of an individual.

In the circumstances, it is difficult to fathom why this issue gathered such high political dimensions. Indirectly it shows that the parliamentary league of the SLPP is comfortable with Mahinda Rajapaksa than President Rajapaksa and the parliamentary group meeting gives ample evidence for this without a doubt. Nevertheless, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was yearning for the party leadership of the SLFP from Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, the solitary fighter for Chandrika was Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. In the SLFP or UPFA for that matter, the party leadership remains with the most senior icon in the party unlike in the UNP. When Chandrika Kumaratunge was President, MrsSirima Bandaranaike continued as the party leader and similarly now Mahinda Rajapaksa.  But it was denied to Chandrika Kumaratunge when Mahinda Rajapaksa became the President.

The UNP constitution has much clearer provisions. According to it, if a member of the UNP is elected executive President then theoretically he or she becomes the party leader.

Weerawansa’s matter has however been dragging on for a while now while the Prime minister himself was trying to soft-peddle the issue after meeting with Wimal at the party leaders meeting last week.

The latest episode is that twelve parties affiliated to the SLPP had met at the residence of Wimal to assess the current political situation. When questioned by reporters, Udaya Gammanpila replied there was nothing new in it and that it is a usual weekly event. Wimal was mysteriously tight-lipped while political observers surmise that something is brewing after they received a warning not to form into groups to scuttle the government’s efforts following their opposition to the ECT.

Will Wimal and his acolytes pose yet another threat to the government at a time when it is weak in its disposition is the pertinent question.  And, yes” Weerawansa has remarked that if the novices in the SLPP continue to harass him he will not hesitate to take a decision—a warning to the government: but whether the Rajapaksa administration will heed to his warnings is yet another matter to be seen.

Buoyed by last week’s resoundingly successful paadayaatra, Tamil nationalist political parties  kept up the momentum with a letter to the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet asking for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court or a specially created International Criminal Tribunal to determine crimes of genocide against the Tamil people, to establish an International Independent Investigative Mechanism to determine crimes of genocide in Sri Lanka and to conduct an internationally organized and monitored referendum in the north and east of Sri Lanka to find a political solution to the Tamil question. The same letter was also sent to eight diplomatic missions in Colombo. The 15 signatories to the letters were the Tamil Peoples National Alliance (TPNA) and its constituent parties the Tamil National Party and Eelam Peoples Liberation Front.  Others included the Thamizh Makkal Kootani, Thamizh Makkal TesiyaKootani, Tamil National Green organization, EezhaThamezhar Suyadchi Kazhkam and civil society members.  The TNA distanced itself and did not sign the letter.  

Meanwhile the success of the paada yaatra from Pottuvil to Polikandy and the voluntariness of the participation was something the organisers themselves did not expect.  Support for the walk also came from overseas from country’s like Switzerland where convoys of cars were seen on roads with the walks hashtag slogan. The walk was initially planned from the 3-6th of February but was extended by one day to the 7th of February. The P2P as it has now come to be familiarly known is estimated to have drawn an unprecedented crowd of about 60, 000 with walkers swelling the numbers as they joined from key cities such as Batticaloa, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchiand Chavakachcheri enroute to Jaffna.  

The walk was intended to bring attention to a host of demands which have been unresolved for years but it was also cathartic.   One Tamil political source described how it had been an emotional moment for many people who have been suffering for so long because their grievances have not been addressed.   Among these demands are the need for answers about the whereabouts of relatives who went missing during the conflict and the release of Tamil political prisoners.  Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Parliament last Wednesday there are no political prisoners in Sri Lanka. The demands also include the withdrawal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act because confessions under it cannot be accepted without further corroboration, an end to land grab and the settling of Sinhalese in the north and east, and a decision regarding the burial of those who die of Covid 19.  According to political sources the police had tried to obtain stay orders from at least five magistrates courts in the north and east. Three courts had issued them on grounds that the walk will amount to Nuisance and will violate Covid health regulations while two others had not. It is unclear if the Orders which were obtained were served on the respondents. Minister of Public Security, Law and Order Sarath Weerasekara has said that the participants of the march have been photographed and legal action will be taken against them.

While the march brought together the Tamil and Muslim communities in what was perhaps the biggest show of solidarity in recent Sri Lankan political history it also brought together the TNA and TPNA, Tamil parties at the two ends of the political spectrum. Former Supreme Court judge and northern province chief minister C. V Wigneswaran broke away from the TNA and formed the TPNA together with fellow politicians in the EPRLF and TNP following frustrations with the TNA for taking the accelerator off the Tamil issue and their perceived pandering to the whims of the central administration. The TPNA wants self- determination for the Tamil people in the north and east.

The government was checkmated after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse allegedly said that Sri Lanka will allow the burial of those who die of Covid- 19.  Both national and international media were quick to report it, putting the government in a difficult position to renege on the statement.  Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan who will be coming to Sri Lanka on a state visit on 22 February also welcomed the GoSL move. The controversy arose after the Prime Minister replied a question which was raised in Parliament by Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP S. M Marikkar about allowing burials if it is scientifically proven that there is no ground water contamination as a result. Although it has not been made official yet, it is reliably learnt that a positive response is expected from the Committee appointed by the government to look into the burial of those who die from Covid-19. A political source said that it will have to be the President who has to give the final greenlight for the burial of Covid -19 bodies. Opposition political parties saw the PM’s statement as an attempt by the government to appease Pakistan Prime Minister Khan who will meet with President Gotabaya Rajapakse, the Prime Minister and senior government officials and is also expected to address Parliament.  In light of the core group on Sri Lanka planning to bring a Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council sessions which will start in the third week of February, the government is keen to solicit Pakistan’s support and will expect a lobby of other Islamic states as well. A host of burning issues have now been put under the spotlight and the flare will not be missed at the UNHRC.

The Crudia zeylanica tree which caused a maelstrom last week is still standing but is now at risk for a different reason. Environmentalists fear it is being neglected without much needed water for its survival, especially since the surrounding trees and foliage which gave it shade are not there anymore. They point out that the situation can be easily corrected with water from the nearby Demala Ela. Assistant Conservator of Forests in the Gampaha division of the Forest Department Devanee Jayathilaka, who around the same time last year stood up to State Minister SanathNishantha and refused to build a playground on a protected mangrove, intervened to save the endangered tree which could have been bulldozed to make way for the construction of the central express highway from Colombo to Kandy. Such a move would have been contrary to the decision taken during discussions by relevant government agencies to make a diversion in the road so that the tree, which could be the only one of its kind in the world, can be saved. It is questionable whether Sri Lanka has the technology to relocate the tree.  The Crudia zeylanica or Sri Lankan legume was thought to be extinct after there was no trace of it since its initial discovery in 1868.  It was entered in the IUCN red list of 2006 and the National Red List of 2012 which is compiled by the Ministry of Environment. The tree was rediscovered years later in 2019 by researchers when an environmental quality assessment was being done before work on the expressway began.  The tree is located in a forest patch close to the Daraluwa railway station in Gampaha and near the Mirigama section of the expressway.  The Crudia Zeylanica is a protected tree species under schedule 8 of section 42 of Sri Lanka’s Flora and Fauna Protection Ordnance. Section 67 of the Ordnance make offences under it cognizable ones thereby doing away with the need for a warrant for an arrest to be made.

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