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Sri Lankan protests open up old wounds

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People shout slogans during an ongoing anti-government demonstration in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan protests against the Rajapaksa government's corruption and economic mishandling are now also beginning to condemn the regime's other egregious mistakes.

As protesters bring up issues such as human rights violations and militarisation that were long-buried and ignored during the rule of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, voices of minority groups are emerging slowly, some with relief, and others with some fear or cynicism.

Muslims - who most recently faced the brunt of the Rajapaksas allowing extremist Sinhala Buddhists to run riot and were forced to cremate their relatives who died of Covid-19 despite global condemnation - are reassured to see the often-silent majority community speak of ethnic unity today.

Shipping executive Firoz Fayaz Joonus, 49, had to cremate his father, the third recorded Covid-19 death in Sri Lanka, on April 1, 2020 due to a baseless state claim that burials contaminated the groundwater.

"We begged the doctors, activists and Muslim politicians called them, but in the end, I had to take him to the crematorium because I was given no other choice," said Mr Firoz.

The Rajapaksas are Buddhists, who traditionally cremate their dead. But Islamic law considers it haram.

Under a strict pandemic lockdown for two years that prohibited large gatherings, families of Muslims and Christians forced to cremate their loved ones found a quiet way to express their agony. After a 20-day-old was cremated against the parents' wishes, families began to tie white ribbons of protest on the gates of the Borella cemetery in Colombo.

"Every night, the military would remove the ribbons, and every morning some families would tie them back," said activist Marisa de Silva who helped mobilise some families for a petition against the order.

-The government reversed the cremation order only in February this year, after the visit of Pakistan's then prime minister Imran Khan and several condemnations from Middle Eastern countries.

The rhetoric and violence against Muslims, who make up about 9 per cent of the population, has escalated after the Easter bombings in 2019 (correct?), said peace activist Shreen Saroor. The Rajapaksas-backed extremist Buddhist monk group Bodu Bala Sena led mass assaults, anti-halal and anti-hijab campaigns.

Some Muslims like the Junoos family were vilified in state-owned media as "coronavirus carriers" and others as terrorists.

Mrs Rizmeena Junoos, 45, who joined the protests at Galle Face promenade in Colombo on April 16, said: "I was very happy - all the people are against the Rajapaksas today. It is Allah's punishment for their tormenting of innocents."

As she broke her Ramadan fast at a designated spot at the protest site that day, she felt "accepted for the first time in many years as an equal Sri Lankan."

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Voices of minority groups are emerging slowly, some with relief, and others with some fear or cynicism. PHOTO: AFP

Gradually now, protesters are also broaching the once-contentious subject of justice for enforced disappearances and custodial torture.

Only a month ago on March 20, the military police beat up Mrs Easwari Mariyasuresh from Mullaitivu district during Prime Minister Rajapaksa's visit to Tamil-dominated Jaffna in north Sri Lanka.

Mrs Mariyasuresh's husband had disappeared in 2009 after he was arrested by the navy during a fishing trip. She has since protested every year with relatives of over 20,000 people unaccounted for in the aftermath of the 2009 armed conflict.

An Office of Missing Persons constituted for reparations in 2017 under former president Maithripala Sirisena recorded thousands of complaints. But his successor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, voted in by 6.9 million people in 2019, appointed officials who undermined its independence. In January 2020, he said all the missing "were actually dead."

Mrs Mariyasuresh supports the anti-government protests today, but told The Straits Times that she is hesitant to join them: "We don't want to reduce our fight into one for kerosene, gas and petrol. Then, the justice we demanded for 12 years will have no meaning. The protests say 'Go Home Gota', I say 'Go to Jail Gota'."

She couldn't help but notice the "lenient" state attitude towards the middle-class Colombo protests compared to the years of neglect and harassment she has endured.

As tuk-tuk driver A. Sasiharan, 32, drove into Galle Face, he honked a popular tune of solidarity but pulled his mask up and red cap down over his eyes. A victim of alleged custodial torture for 2.5 years in the terrorist investigation department, he was still afraid of openly joining the protests, lest he be targeted again.

A middle-aged Tamil couple quietly watching the thousands mill about on April 16, said: "It is dreamlike."

The upcountry couple, whose shop had been burnt down in the 1983 pogrom, had lived their life "in fear and mistrust of the Sri Lankan government".

The 59-year-old husband, who gave his name as Nathan, was cynical: "Again, some Sinhala supremacist will do some trick and people will fall for it."

But his wife S. Vijayalakshmi, 54, pointed to some Tamil placards and urged him to be hopeful. "Just enjoy the feeling of equality, at least for a moment," she said.

Former head of Sri Lanka's human rights commission Ambika Satkunanathan noted that protesters today demanded the repeal of a draconian anti-terrorism law, and called for demilitarisation - issues that until today, were raised largely by human rights activists and civilians in the north and east where most Tamils and Muslims live, even as they faced threats, surveillance and harassment.

"Among groups that have protested for years, there is a combination of exhaustion and question of whether joining the current protests will lead to meaningful change. Given their past experiences, it is up to them to join the current protests on their own terms. This moment is now for the Sinhalese community to demand systemic change to address the root causes of discrimination," said Ms Satkunanathan.

Experienced activists could be seen gently nudging first-time protestors at Galle Face to make pamphlets trilingual, slogans inclusive of gender and race, and the national anthem sung in both Sinhala and Tamil.

"This historic moment will be wasted if it only removes the Rajapaksas, and not the casual racism that empowered them," said activist Marisa de Silva.