Increasing evidence of gross mishandling of the second wave of pandemic Diplomatic dispute with Maldives over request to bury Sri Lan SJB to present new constitution for the party; uncertainty in UNP over Ranil’s role ka’s Muslim COVID victims     A horrendous 2020 ends in just four days with fears over what 2021 would [...]


Tough times ahead in 2021: Priority for COVID-19 and economic crises


  • Increasing evidence of gross mishandling of the second wave of pandemic
  • Diplomatic dispute with Maldives over request to bury Sri Lanka's Muslim COVID victims
  • SJB to present new constitution for the party; uncertainty in UNP over Ranil's role

Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa together with party seniors and leaders of allied parties joined Muslims and civil society activists during a demonstration at the General Cemetery in Kanatte in support of the Muslims’ demand that they be allowed to bury their loved ones who die of COVID-19


A horrendous 2020 ends in just four days with fears over what 2021 would hold for Sri Lankans battered by the coronavirus and rising prices of essential consumer goods.

True, they are not alone in the spread of the deadly disease. It is the same in other parts of the world but to varying degrees. Locally it has forced closure of shops, businesses, restaurants, and left thousands unemployed. Yet, like some politicians, one cannot seek solace in that nor remain content. In hindsight, it is becoming increasingly clear that there was gross mishandling of the campaign to prevent the resurgent spread of the disease. It is exacerbated by different arms of the government adopting their own approaches, more often contradictory and even confusing.

This is how various areas are now coming under lockdowns at different times with scant information over how they are caused. From December 1 to 24, there had been 15,721 positive cases of COVID-19, according to official statistics. Thus, the daily average of cases is 628. Until midnight yesterday, the total number of positive cases since the outbreak has topped 40,000. Of this number, 15,721 positive cases were identified in December alone. This is more than one third of all the cases recorded in Sri Lanka. They are surfacing through PCR and rapid antigen tests. That has raised the question in health circles over how many are remaining untested and thus passing on the infection to others. Thus, the main concern for Sri Lankans in the coming New Year is by how much more the positive cases would spiral, how many more would die and when will matters return to normal.

If this is a bad enough scenario, news about a mutant virus spreading through Britain has raised further concerns the world-over. Since the variant became known, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered the suspension of flights from Britain to Sri Lanka. However, by that time, at least two flights had arrived in Colombo from London. This directive has left behind hundreds who want to return. Sri Lanka Cricket officials say, however, that there is no change in the arrival of the England cricket team in Colombo on January 3. Special precautionary measures have been taken, they said.

The experience of two young Sri Lankans, working in a Care Home in London’s NW3 area, has added to concerns in Britain. Every Monday they are tested for Covid-19. On December 11, they both received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It was administered from the Royal Free Hospital at NW3. They had been tested on December 18. The second instalment of the vaccine is due on January 8. When the results of the test came on December 19, a day later, one turned out to be positive with the new variant. Pfizer-BioNTech’s research division has invited him, upon recovery, to visit the company. It wants to determine how he contacted the mutant virus.

In July 2020, Pfizer and BioNTech announced its agreement with the U.K. to supply 30 million doses of the BNT162b2 mRNA-based vaccine, once authorised for emergency use. The order, the company said in a statement, was increased to 40 million doses in early October. The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts. Now that the vaccine is authorised in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses…..” This authorisation has been given and vaccinations are under way.

Unlike in Sri Lanka where a honey-based potion with herbs, and spices was conditionally approved by the ayurvedic authorities in just a few days, the two companies Pfizer and BioNTech spent months since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic researching on the vaccine. Here again, the local potion has been made by a person who is not a registered Ayurvedic physician. It is Dhammika Bandara, a construction worker who is also described as a Kapuwa — a lay head of a devale or temple. In this case it is located at his home.  Even this week, there were large crowds outside his house near Kegalle to buy the potion. An enraged would-be customer, who lost his patience, exhorted that he was in a hurry because his wife had tested Covid-19 positive. Most of them had gathered without facemasks and created chaotic scenes.

When the situation became uncontrollable, Police were called in to disperse the crowds. By seeking the help of a ruling party politician, an MP, Bandara has succeeded in winning recognition for his product within days. So much so, none other than Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi drank a dose in front of television and still cameras — a marketing strategy that paid off immensely and made Bandara richer overnight. The same minister is a member of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and she, together with State Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle, stepped up efforts this week to obtain vaccines that have won approval from different countries for emergency use of their product. At least until then, promoting the purported Ayurvedic potion, seems a public distraction. More so when there is no scientific proof that it cured COVID-19. It is known that large orders placed by countries like Britain and the United States, among others, to obtain vaccines would take a considerable time to deliver. The exception would be vaccines from Russia or China but those are yet to be approved.

The burial controversy

The spill over of a COVID-19 related issue to the New Year is the demand by Muslims that they be allowed to bury the bodies of those who die of COVID-19 instead of cremation. Among other matters, they cite the World Health Organisation guidelines (WHO) guidelines and the practice followed by many other countries. However, health officials here have warned the Government that burials could contaminate the water table and pose a health hazard — a debate which is countered by other experts who contend there was no such danger. Last Wednesday, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), now the country’s main opposition, headed by its leader, Sajith Premadasa, staged a demonstration outside the main entrance to the General Cemetery at Borella. They displayed placards urging burials. Muslims also staged demonstrations in Kalutara, Maradana, Akurana, Kalmunai and Jaffna.

A day earlier, at the weekly news briefing after the Cabinet meeting, Agence France Presse (AFP) Bureau Chief Amal Jayasinghe asked, “Last week we raised the question about the Maldives saying that Sri Lanka made a request to bury COVID victims (Muslims from Sri Lanka) in the Maldives. Can you clarify minister, what exactly is the situation? Has Sri Lanka made a request to the Maldives or where does it stand now?”

Minister Ramesh Pathirana, one of two official spokespersons for the Cabinet: We have not officially requested. That was in the social media and speculation made by some people. The Government has not made a request from the Maldivian government for such activity.

Jayasinghe: In that case what are the steps the Government will take because we had the Foreign Minister of the Maldives using the name of the Sri Lankan President saying that he had made the request and that the request was under consideration. It sounded like an official formal request to the Maldives from one head of the state to another and now you are saying it is not an official request . So how would you clarify this and would the Sri Lankan Government respond to it in a similar way.

Dr Pathirana: There was no official communication as such. We have taken the issue of burials very seriously and that is why we repeatedly requested the health authorities to look into it on a humanitarian basis and take a decision. So, we are awaiting that decision and most probably in the next couple of days we will receive it.

To say the least, Dr Pathirana’s remarks that no such request was made from the Maldivian President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, fall into the category of misinformation, for which he often blames “the social media.” If he were unaware, it would have been good both for him and more importantly very fair to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to have refrained from any comment. The question is how many would believe his claim as one of the official Cabinet spokespersons. Simply blaming it on the social media and getting away does not help Pathirana’s credibility either.

The reason – on December 14 – the Maldivian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in Dhivehi, their national language. It was also posted on their website. Translated into English for the Sunday Times by a scholar in Male, the statement said that the President of Sri Lanka has requested the President of the Maldives to assist in arranging funerals for Muslims dying in Sri Lanka due to the challenges Sri Lanka is facing to have funerals adhering to Islamic religious law.

Therefore, Minister Pathirana’s remark is an accusation against a sovereign government, one of Sri Lanka’s neighbours, that it is propagating blatant lies. How much more ridiculous could things get? If Pathirana’s position is correct, it calls for a diplomatic protest with the government of the Maldives for embarrassing the President of Sri Lanka. Perhaps, he is not familiar with such diplomatic nuances.

If Minister Pathirana is also in doubt about the Maldivian Foreign Ministry’s own statement, he could have easily checked with the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Male. Instead, he has chosen to assume that all Sri Lankans are fools and would believe whatever he says on behalf of the President, the Cabinet, and the government. There is also another significant aspect. December 14, the day the Maldivian Foreign Ministry statement was released, Deshaya (a Sinhala weekly of Wijeya group) first revealed the story that the Maldives had agreed to allow bodies of Muslims dying from COVID- 19 to be buried in that country.

This week, embarrassed Maldivian officials told diplomats during private interactions that the official announcement (twitter included) was an “error of judgement.” Why? The Maldivian leadership had assumed that President Rajapaksa’s request was made to President Solih with the concurrence of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. It later turned out not to be so, they had claimed. If those statements are indeed true, that gives us a glimpse of how the government of Maldives functions. It has an embassy in Colombo and both President Solih and Foreign Minister Shaheed, who wants to be President of the UN General Assembly in 2021, appear to be out of touch with developments here. Bringing his weight to bear against the move was former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a senior politician and a scholar from the Al Azhar University in Egypt.  He said in a tweet “We warmly welcome all foreign visitors irrespective of their nationality and faith and wish them a happy and peaceful stay here. But bringing the bodies of foreign Covid-19 victims to be buried in Maldives is something I cannot support.”

The controversy over burial of Muslims who die of the coronavirus has brought about an unexpected development. There were demonstrations in Britain, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and the United States. They were all organised jointly by the Tamil and Muslim diaspora groups. Speakers from the two sides addressed gatherings during the protests they staged in London, Toronto, Geneva, Milan, and New York. Since then, the two groups have been carrying out a strong media campaign directed at British political leaders as well as influential groups in West Asia.

The London-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) said in a statement: “While appreciating Sri Lanka’s relative success with the management of COVID-19, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) would like to express its strong condemnation of the mandatory cremation of all dead bodies suspected to have been infected with the coronavirus and calls upon the leaders of all communities to do all they can to have this irrational and discriminatory government policy reversed.”

The Sunday Times asked Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control, what the Government’s plans for 2021. Her response: “We are planning to appoint the committee to review the COVID-19 prevention methods. Based on the committee recommendations we are planning set up a COVID eradication programme. The committee is still to be appointed; therefore, I am unable to give the names of the members.

“We plan to contain the spread of the virus in 2021 but it would be a difficult task as there are different strains of the virus. Already there is a new strain of the virus found in Britain. We are planning to bring down vaccines for COVID-19 at least to manage the patient numbers and contain the spread of the virus. There are several vaccines on COVID-19. It is still too early to determine the strength of the vaccines. However, in future we have plans to use the vaccines to at least cover the high-risk groups and reduce the number of deaths. People still have to keep supporting the Government by maintaining social distance, using facemasks, and following other safety precautions. If people provide their fullest support, we can curb the spread of the virus. We have to simultaneously control the COVID-19 pandemic and engage in other health related matters in 2021. Priority must be given to other health-related matters too; there are other diseases that can kill people. The health sector has to look into those matters too.”

Besides the bourgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, the coming year is also showing strong signs of a further spiral in consumer essentials. Since the outbreak in March, prices have been climbing gradually with periodic shortage of some items. An example – tamarind is Rs 1,000 a kilo. Turmeric is anything between Rs 1000 and 1,500 but not easily available. The issue has become the biggest challenge for Basil Rajapaksa, who is heading the Presidential Task Force on Economic Recovery. He has to ensure supplies obtained reach countrywide whilst bearing in mind the constraints faced by curbs on non-priority imports. This is also amidst complaints by those in the import sector about difficulties in re-opening Letters of Credit through local banks.

This comes as the rupee depreciated against the US dollar to just under Rs 195. Concerned by the development, the Central Bank termed it as an “undue depreciation.” It said in a statement: “The Central Bank is of the view that the recent increase in volatility of the exchange rate is unwarranted and unacceptable. Accordingly, among other measures, the Central Bank will take appropriate action aggressively hereafter to contain this volatility in the domestic foreign exchange market. The Central Bank expects that these actions, together with the continuation of the curtailment of non-essential imports, will enable the Rupee to appreciate within the next few days towards the levels of below Rs. 185 per US dollar observed in November 2020.

“The Central Bank reiterates that official reserves remain at sufficient levels. At present, gross official reserves are at US dollars 5.6 billion. Discussions with the Central Bank’s domestic and foreign counterparts to boost the level of reserves are also reaching an advanced stage of conclusion. The receipt of these expected inflows as well as the ongoing improvements in the domestic production economy leading to the expansion of foreign exchange earnings will facilitate the maintenance of exchange rate stability, while meeting Sri Lanka’s debt obligations on time, in the period ahead as well.”

SJB ready with new constitution

Other than for the Sri Lanka Podujana Nidhahas Sandhanaya (SLPNS) led government, the opposition parties are gearing themselves. There was more activity in the Samagi Jana Balavegaya  (SJB). Internecine issues notwithstanding, the SJB has reached accord on a new party constitution. It has now been sent to the printer and the party plans its annual convention at a date next year.

In terms of the SJB constitution, provision has been made to elect the leader at the annual convention every year. This is no different to the United National Party (UNP) which followed the same procedure. There will be a 75-member Executive Committee and a 15-member Management Council. The Executive Committee will include the leader, the chairman, the general secretary, four senior deputy secretaries and the treasurer. It will also include MPs and trade union representatives. The executive committee members will hold office for a year. The SJB leader has been empowered to appoint 16 members to the executive committee from various organisations of the party.

The constitution has laid down that the party convention be empowered with three key responsibilities. They are policy making, deciding on a candidate for a presidential election and make changes for the party constitution.

In SJB circles, there is widespread speculation that former Minister Champika Ranawaka will receive a key party position. Ranawaka, who recently resigned from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), declined comment except to say that he had formed the 1943 Brigade — “an apolitical organisation” which will work “for the development of the country.” He said the year 1943 was when free education was first introduced in Sri Lanka. “Professional groups, the clergy and economists among them will get together and formulate an action plan to develop the economy which has deteriorated now,” he said.

In the once powerful United National Party (UNP), the uncertainty continues. Amidst reports that a new set of office bearers would be appointed, the party’s Working Committee met on Wednesday but took no decisions. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe declared that all party officials would cease to hold office at the end of this year (i.e. December 31). Hence, he told those present not to worry about positions but to immediately embark on measures to strengthen the party. This is by helping organisational activity at grassroots level. The remarks came amidst moves by a section who had come prepared to have their own nominees elected. However, UNP sources said their leader was well aware of the move. They did not command the support of the majority of those in the Working Committee either, they said.

It was just weeks after the August parliamentary elections, where the UNP suffered its worst defeat in history leaving no representation in Parliament, that Wickremesinghe announced he would step down as leader by December 31. Though he still has four days to do so, whether he would carry this out remains an important question. Opinion among UNPers is divided. Some say he will remain as leader for a longer period whilst others do not share this view.

Sirisena speaks out

Wickremesinghe came in for some biting criticism by former President Maithripala Sirisena when he spoke with me last Tuesday on current developments and what 2021 portends. Even if the Supreme Court had declared as unconstitutional his sacking of the then Premier Wickremesinghe, Sirisena said he won “the endorsement of the people.” He said, “I took a decision to sack (then) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Cabinet in October 2018. I appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the successor. I also appointed a new cabinet. My expectation was to stop the country from moving towards a wrong path. I actually wanted to remove a group which was driving the country in a wrong direction.

“The 2019 presidential election and the 2020 Parliamentary election results confirm that the decision that I took during October 2018 was correct. People have reduced Ranil Wickremesinghe down to zero. The people have endorsed my action. People have understood that he is not suitable. His parliamentary membership was also taken away. People have taken the same decision I took earlier.

Q – Can you explain what reasons contributed to his plight?

A- “There were lot of issues. The Central Bank bond scam took place. The Commission of Inquiry did not function properly. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigations were not conducted properly. They were interfered with. He always weakened every investigation. He had no need to bring down his good friend Arjuna Mahendran from Singapore to become Governor of the Central Bank. I think he supported Mahendran to escape from Sri Lanka. Inquiries were conducted by the Police on people who probed the bond scam. Orders were given by him.  The Police were under them.

“An example – when the Commission of Inquiry checked the phone records of Arjuna Aloysius, they have found that he (Aloysius) had worked with politicians, especially with Ministers. “When the commission of inquiry inquired into it, Ranil Wickeremesinghe carried out an investigation against the CID officers concerned. He (Wickremesinghe) paralysed the investigation.

“I stopped the Singapore Free Trade Agreement. That agreement was going to do great damage to our country. They also wanted to go ahead with the MCC agreement with the United States. I was always against it.  The US Ambassador met me on several occasions. She urged me to sign it. I directly told her; to her face that until I am in power, I will not allow the MCC agreement.

“The Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) then chaired by Wickremesinghe was corrupt. It had taken certain decisions without even seeking cabinet approval.  The CCEM was under the control of the cabinet, but Wickremesinghe, with his good friends created a lot of economic problems. Through those actions corruption too took place.

“I also appointed a presidential commission to look into the corruption under my own government. I appointed another Presidential Commission to look into corruption before 2015; I tabled both these reports in parliament and sent copies to the Attorney General’s Department.  However, no one knows what happened afterwards. If they are at least looking into corruption of my government, it is good.

“I don’t know why they are not taking action as recommended by those two commission reports. I took these actions to stop corruption in this country.  During my term, I appointed five presidential commissions. The first was to probe the Central Bank bond scam. Another was to inquire into corruption that took place under the previous government (before 2015). There was a commission to look into corruption of my government. Then I appointed another commission to look into corrupt actions carried out by SriLankan Airlines. The fifth commission is the Presidential Commission appointed on Easter Sunday attacks. There is no mention about the commission reports. The recommendations made by the commissions must be implemented.

“The Sri Lanka Freedom Party will carry out a new programme of action in 2021. With the problems caused by the spreading of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had less capability to have meetings and discussions. We are going to give a new image to the party; we will appoint new party organisers. We plan to engage in a political action plan for the betterment of the country. We plan to strengthen the party through that process.“There will be many new faces joining our SLFP, we are planning to involve professionals, and people have a good response about our party. They are willing to join our party; therefore, we are trying to renew the party with a new makeover.”

Q – Do you have any expectation to become a cabinet member?

A – “No, I do not have any expectation. The economy of this country needs to be developed. When developing the country, the state sector has to take the lead role. There are about 1.5 million state sector employees. That is a huge amount according to the size of the country. We see that we cannot improve the efficiency of the state sector without reforming it. The efficiency of the state sector has dropped. We know that there is a group of people who work well. We are also aware that there are many inefficient state institutes. There is a greater number of inefficient institutes.

“There are some corrupt institutes that should be closed, those should be changed.  I see the need to develop the state sector. They are the ones who guide the people. The specialised sections are in the state sector – be it health, education, or agriculture.

“If we take agriculture, we import 10,000 metric tonnes of chillie a year from Pakistan or India. The responsibility in educating the farmers on cultivation is with the agriculture experts. It is something which is needed for their job. The political leadership also need to provide the resources needed. But there are experts in the sector. But I have questions as to whether they do their task.

“When we surf the internet, we see the development in agriculture in the world. They increase the yield of fruits, grains, and vegetables. There are many specialisations in agriculture. The agriculture experts do not practically share their knowledge with the farmers.”

Q – Do you think appointing retired Army officials to such positions is a good move?

A – Even there is an issue with administrative officials, appointing ex-military officers is unfair for the state administrative officials; they cannot govern a country by angering administrative officials. The administrative officers’ posts are given to the ex-army officers. The administrative officers are displeased and mentally troubled due to this; so they are not functioning properly as they are not given the place they deserve.”

President Sirisena said that Muslims should be allowed to bury their coronavirus dead. “The government must adopt a humane stance since this is a sensitive religious issue,” he said, adding that “there should be social equality and coexistence between the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslim and other groups.” The former President, who was also a onetime Health Minister, defended the Government’s measures against the coronavirus. “The Health Ministry and the Government are doing their best. The people should also be responsible about their own health,” he said.

As State Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle cautions, the priority next year is to “contain the spread of the virus and manage the numbers.” She is candid enough to speak of the realities involved. The Central Bank has officially acknowledged the depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar. The impact of the move on consumer items, goods and services would be enormous. To say it mildly, tough times are ahead and the message – Sri Lankans would have to brace themselves for it.

Added to it is the March 2021 session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Judging by the preparations of western countries, Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the sponsorship of the US backed resolution, alone will not hold the Government in good stead. The question is whether the Government is aware of the preparations. If it does, what countermeasures are being taken. There are no signs and no indication. Does that mean matters could end up in a panic response?

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