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Lankan PM reaches out to beleaguered Muslims with provincial polls in mind

SAM SPECIAL-30-12-2020

Anxious to hold the long-delayed elections to the nine Provincial Councils (PCs) in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has softened the regime’s hard stance on the communally sensitive issue of the burial of those who had died of COVID-19.

Since April, the policy has been to cremate the COVID dead, irrespective of the faith of the patient, on the plea that burial of the COVID dead will contaminate the water table, given the geological conditions in Sri Lanka. According to media reports, more than 50 Muslims have been cremated so far.

But the Muslims, who are 9% of the 21 million Sri Lankans, believe that cremation grossly violates the tenets of Islam as it is no different from breaking the bones of a living person. They have been appealing to the highest in the land fervently, raising the issue in parliament and protesting peacefully outside. There have also been cases of Muslim families refusing to claim bodies as they could not bury them. Some prominent Muslims have openly said on social media that if they died of COVID, family members need not claim their bodies.

On December 1, Sri Lanka's Supreme Court dismissed petitions filed by 12 members of the Muslim community against the government's regulation. The court dismissed the petitions after accepting the government’s plea that the matter could be taken up only by scientific and health experts and not by a court of law as the question was one of public health.

In the meanwhile, pressure has been building up on the Rajapaksa regime from the international community too. In November, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer, wrote to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on the issue saying: “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 from accessing medical care when they have symptoms or a history of contact.”

She pointed out that the common assumption that people who died of a communicable disease should be cremated to prevent spread is not supported by evidence. Instead, cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources, she added. According to World Health Organization guidance, people who have died from COVID-19 can therefore be buried or cremated according to local standards and family preferences, with appropriate protocols for handling the body, the UN Resident Coordinator recalled.

It should be noted that Sri Lanka and China are the only countries in the world which compulsorily cremate the COVID dead.

Maldivian offer

The Maldivian government had officially written to the Lankan government saying that some islands in the sprawling Maldivian archipelago could be used to bury COVID dead Lankan Muslims. Reacting to this, Lankan Foreign Secretary Adm. Prof. Jayanath Colombage told this reporter that the government would have to consider the practicability of the offer first before accepting it. Indications are that the Lankans will politely refuse to take up the offer. But the offer itself is a source of embarrassment to the Lankan government.

Mahinda woos Muslims

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had already taken the matter into his hands and had asked officials of the Health Ministry and experts to review the April 2020 decision to ban burials and find suitable lands for burials quickly.

The reason for Mahinda’s steps to find a solution to please the Muslims lies in his anxiety to hold elections to the nine Provincial Councils at the earliest. His brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the Presidential election mostly on the vote of the majority Sinhala community, and the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won the parliamentary elections also on the strength of the majority Sinhala. But winning provincial and local body elections is difficult without a broader ethnic and religious support base.

More importantly, the Rajapaksas’ would not have been able to pass the 20th constitutional amendment (which considerably enhanced the powers of the Executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) without the help of six Muslim MPs from the opposition. Till the last moment the SLPP was not sure of getting the required two thirds majority because of internal opposition to the 20 th., Amendment. The Muslim MPs who came to the rescue of the government at that critical juncture were: Nazeer Ahamed; AASM Raheem; Faizal Caseem; HMM Harees; MS Thowfeek; and Ishak Rahman. These hard core politicians would not have agreed to cross vote if there had not been a political bargain.

Why provincial elections?

Mahinda Rajapaksa is now in a hurry to hold the Provincial Council elections for his party’s own survival. Being a hard-boiled politician, the Prime Minister feels the need to create and activate institutions which will train and bring up a second and third line of leaders and political activists for his party. The Provincial Councils are structures which groom such leaders. This is the reason why, as Finance Minister, Mahinda gave the Provincial Councils Ministry a large allocation in the 2020-2021 budget, perhaps next only to Defense.

The Prime Minister is very keen that the PC elections are held at the earliest before the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government begins to feel the heat of anti-incumbency. While Sri Lanka is doing better in pandemic control than many other countries, there is no knowing as to what lies in store for it, in the long run. Therefore, while the going is good, he would like to hold the provincial polls.

And early 2021 may be a good time for that. As per the economic forecast, in 2021, the Lankan economy will recover as restrictions ease and foreign demand rebounds. The economy is expected to grow by 3.4%. A vaccine for COVID could also enter the market in 2021 to boost the economy and generate incomes.

Reasons for delay

The provincial polls had not been held for many years because of moves to amend the representative system to make it more minority-friendly. A three-year effort to change the system failed in 2018.

In 2015, a Delimitation Commission had been set up to redraw the electorates mainly to help minorities get a fair representation. Also the Proportional Representation system was to be supplemented by the First Past the Post System, so that stable governments could be formed. But the Commission’s recommendations were liked by none, the leaders of the majority and the minorities. It was comprehensively defeated in parliament in 2018. Both the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Leader of the Joint Opposition, Dinesh Gunawardena favored the continuance of the existing Proportional Representation System.

This is the view of Mahinda Rajapaksa too. When he met the reconstituted Election Commission last week, he asked them to explore the possibility of holding the provincial elections under the Proportional Representation System. Simultaneously, to please the minorities, he asked the Speaker to establish a parliamentary committee to advice on delimitation of electorates. A changeover could take place when an agreed delimitation is worked out. The Delimitation Commission will therefore remain and continue its work. It now has a former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya as a member.