The sudden resurgence of the Covid pandemic in Sri Lanka was totally unexpected by the people at large though it was expected and predicted by those in the scientific and medical communities. The people had been reassured by the political leaders and sections of the media that Sri Lanka was a success story unlike other countries, including more developed ones that had been devastated by the pandemic. However, the country had received an early warning in the second wave which had commenced in October last year with the spread that was believed to have originated in the garment industry. But much before this the country’s top medical associations had been warning that community spread of the coronavirus had already commenced. These warnings were neither heard nor acted upon by the vast majority of the population. The mainstream view until the shock of the third wave in April, was that Sri Lanka was a success in Covid management.
The fact that the economic crisis looms large in the government’s calculations can be seen can be seen in the decisions to save money by replacing the import of chemical fertilizers with locally produced organic fertilizers and unwillingness to tackle the rapid spread of the Covid virus with the same zeal as last year. The Covid spread at this time would call for a total lockdown at least in the crowded urban areas. By Sri Lankan standards, the virus is on the rampage, up from less than 200 per day a month ago to 2000 a day at this time. But the political pressure on the government from the people and from commercial enterprises is to keep the country open. When asked about how Covid is in their areas, most people would say that their greater fear is of lockdown than of Covid. Those in the urban areas, who have to earn their daily wage, prefer to run the risk of Covid rather than face the economic hardship of another lockdown.
The Chinese embassy was bold to question what the big fuss was about their invitation to parliamentarians to a tour of Colombo Port City which China has recovered from the sea through an amazing feat of technological prowess. An opposition MP asked why the embassy was directing this study visit when in the past it had been done by the Urban Development Authority. In a tweet the embassy replied, “Why not? A field visit will help to understand better about the project. Seeing is believing. Thousands of visitors from all walks of life have visited the site, even during the pandemic.” The issue of national sovereignty that the parliamentarian was concerned has induced governments to give up possible foreign investments in the past. But because it is China this time it seems to be different.
The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.
One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future. The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Viswalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future. According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness. Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest. There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.
The government’s first reaction to the passage of the UNHRC resolution was to make the point that there was no unanimity within the international community with regard to it. Government spokespersons pointed out that the countries pushing for the resolution came from the Western bloc and that those non-Western countries that voted in favour of it were dependent on Western patronage and themselves not implementing human rights in an acceptable manner. Of the 10 or so countries subjected to resolutions at the recently concluded UNHRC session, only of them was a Western ally, and that was Israel. The other countries were Belarus, Burma, Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, South Sudan and Yemen. This and similar observations have enabled the government to convince the majority of the population that it is being found fault with for defending Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty and for not falling prey to the demand to take sides in geopolitical rivalries.
So far it appears that the implications of the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council last week against the Sri Lankan government’s objections have been taken with a pinch of salt. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s reaction to the passage of the resolution by a 22-11 margin was to take note that 14 countries had abstained and therefore a majority of countries had not given their support to the resolution. Two of the countries that abstained, India and Japan, are powerful and important ones to Sri Lanka, as indeed they are in the world, which makes them well suited to play a bridge-building role in the future within the UN Human Rights Council. The relative equanimity with which the passage of the resolution was received within the country as a whole would be on account of the upbeat assessment of the situation by the government. The majority of the population who voted the government into power continue to feel that it is looking after the national interest where this issue is concerned.
The draft resolution on Sri Lanka sponsored by a group of countries led by the United Kingdom is to be put to the vote in Geneva. Key members of the government have been working very hard to ensure that the majority of countries in the 47 member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will give their support to Sri Lanka when the resolution comes to a vote. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa defied fears of the Covid pandemic to take the flight to Bangladesh. This despite the fact that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has tested positive showing the dangers of international travel. The prime minister would have felt impelled to make the journey to secure that country’s support at the forthcoming vote. In the meantime, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a telephone call to the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation who praised the president for his willingness to reach out to international organisations and permitting Muslims who die of Covid to be buried.
The country is facing difficult challenges due to internal and external pressures which is increasing the level of frustration within society. The Covid-generated economic downturn, fallout of the Easter bombing investigation, sugar tax scam and impending UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka need to be dealt with sagaciously. These challenges can best be met if the government is able to mobilise a consensus within the country that unites the people of all ethnic and religious communities in a common stance behind the government. While the government came to power during a time of high ethnic and religious polarization in which the further polarizing of the ethnic and religious communities took place, the need now is for unity and togetherness for the common purpose of upgrading the life of all sections of the people.
A book titled Geneva Crisis – The Way Forward compiled by the Ambassadors’ Forum of Sri Lanka was launched at the Foreign Ministry. The inspiration behind the book was Sarath Wijesinghe, PC and former Ambassador to Israel. The collection of articles, interviews and speeches represents a wide range of views, which gives a holistic view of the problem which is what Ambassador Wijesinghe sought to do. He said the book was conceptualised as a solution to the entire future of the Geneva issue, not as a temporary measure to address the upcoming UNHRC resolution. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage participated at this event. This suggests that within the government there is an appreciation of the importance of different perspectives as befits a plural, multi ethnic, multi religious and multilingual country.