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2020: The Highlights

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When 2020 dawned, Sri Lanka was six weeks into the term of a new president in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The stage was set for the country to go in a new direction where minorities were going to be second class citizens.
“The indications are clear, as are the implications. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected on a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist platform intends to rule as a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist president.”

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The human-elephant conflict has been going on for many years as humans encroached on animal habitats and the elephants retaliated. In an ill-advised move, the government allocated 2,000 shotguns to farmers to protect their crops and homes.

“This decision by a Government is astounding for many reasons, but mostly for the extreme short-sightedness of licensing its citizens to kill or maim elephants.” - Sunela Jayewardene

On independence day, the government banned the singing of the national anthem in Tamil.

January marked 10 years since the disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. His wife Sandya carries on a relentless search for answers and justice.

“Investigative reports by the CID to the Homagama Magistrate Courts indicate that Ekneligoda was abducted from Rajagiriya by Army Intelligence personnel, and taken to Giritale Army Intelligence camp in Polonnaruwa district.”

Ruki Fernando

March saw the first article on COVID-19, a virus that was to define the rest of the year and many more years to come. Pandemic, social distancing and flattening the curve became part of our vocabulary.

A brief guide to the coronavirus pandemic, its implications and what you can do to help -Shashika Bandara

The first warnings on possible prison riots because of the fear of the spread of COVID-19 were sounded.
“They may panic and take desperate measures to protect and remove themselves from real or perceived harm from COVID-19 and may even resort to irrational, illegal or violent behaviour.”

Ruki Fernando

Human rights activists were up in arms over the presidential pardon granted to Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, who was convicted in 2015 of the murder of eight Tamil civilians including three children.
“As the Supreme Court decision illustrates, the murders were cold-blooded, and time and care were taken to commit them in a manner that would avoid detection, which is indicative of premeditation.”

Ambika Satkunanathan

Sri Lanka was under curfew since the government decided it was the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of general elections and a looming constitutional crisis.

“This is certainly no time for a constitutional crisis. There should not be any backsliding of democracy. Unfortunately, unless the President takes immediate corrective action, a constitutional crisis – the second in two years – will be added to these extremely grave health and economic crises.” - Ameer Faaiz and Nizam Kariapper

The issue of forced cremations for victims of COVID-19 came to the fore, causing anguish in the Muslim community whose religion prohibits cremation.

“It is curious that, in the time of a crisis, the rights of minority ethnic groups are so easily restricted for the ‘greater good’ of society, despite there being no logical or evidence-based reasoning to justify the restriction.” - Nida Admani

The Easter Sunday attacks that brought such heartache were remembered. “A year after the heinous attacks, let us collectively stand with the affected families and mourn the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings. Let us share their loss and pray with them to honour and remember our brothers and sisters lost.” - Shreen Saroor

The arrest of Ramzy Razeek over a Facebook post brought protests and calls for his release.

“Ramzy’s seemingly ordinary life has been upended by a state apparatus which acts seemingly with selectivity and without fairplay.” - Z.L. Mohamed

The civil war that ended 11 years ago was commemorated according to the victor’s terms.

“The Prime Minister’s message said the war was not waged against Tamils, but there was no message of solidarity or reference to the large numbers that died, disappeared and injured in the war, most of whom were Tamils.”

Ruki Fernando

The horrors of the July 1983 can never be forgotten and should not be forgotten so that the past is not repeated.
“A whole generation of our fellow citizens do not really know about July 1983; the anger, the pain, the bitterness and suffering it created. It will soon come to pass about the war and its end as well, not to mention the JVP insurgency of the late 1980s. Many forget; too few remember.”

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

The beginning of August saw the SLPP sweep into power with a near two-thirds majority paving the way for constitutional change aimed at strengthening the hand of the president. “The fissuring of the UNP was the earthquake that caused the SLPP’s tidal wave at the parliamentary election. Had the UNP remained undivided, the Rajapaksas would have won a just a simple majority.” - Tisaranee Gunasekara

A beloved husband and wife team, who spent their lives fighting for peace, justice and co-existence, is remembered.

“Committed to the ideas of excellence in scholarship combined with activism for social justice, Neelan and Sithie were a nucleus around which scholars of South Asia, young and old, gathered. Neelan would awe us and Sithie would challenge us so that we became better human beings and better citizens.” - Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy

Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, arrested in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks, languishes in jail as friends, colleagues and international human rights organisations call for his release. “The Muslim moderate is seen as fitting a specific stereotype: he or she is invariably English educated, middle class, fluent in Sinhala and not just in Tamil, and outspoken against Islamisation. In many cases, this is true. Certainly, it is true of the S. Thomas’ educated, bilingual, and outspoken Hejaaz Hizbullah.” - Uditha Devapriya

On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, it is time to revisit the thousands of women and men looking for their relatives who have been forcibly disappeared in the north, south, east and west of Sri Lanka.

“In Sri Lanka, 69 women from the north and east have died without learning the fate of their family members since the end of the war in May 2009. The number of those who have died in the South and other parts of the country while waiting for the return of their relatives from as far back as 1971 is not known.” - Minoli de Soysa

After the sweeping SLPP victory, many voices rise up against the possibility of abolishing the 19th Amendment and bringing in draconian changes to the constitution. However, these voices went unheeded and the 20th Amendment is now part of the constitution.

“The changes proposed in the Bill will change the character and quality of Sri Lankan constitutional democracy for the worse, possibly even to the point of destruction.” - Dr. Asanga Welikala

Thirty years ago, Muslims in the north were chased out of their homes by the LTTE and forced to become refugees. They are still waiting for justice.

“This destitute community remains voiceless, with their struggle for justice shunned by both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists, being marginalised the Muslim community and put on the back burner by central and regional political powers.” - Lukman Harees

The Brandix factory in Minuwangoda is identified as a major cluster fueling the second Covid-19 wave as the exploitation of vulnerable garment workers is exposed. “The workers in these manufacturing enclaves, who are in the bottom end of the global value chain, face many challenges including minimum job security, long and excessive work hours, health issues caused by fatigue, unsafe and hazardous working conditions and minimum social welfare protections.” - Vidura Prabath Munasinghe

Beleaguered environmental defenders fight short sighted government policies and policy reversals in an attempt to stop the wholesale destruction of the country’s precious flora and fauna.

“What it took evolution billions of years to achieve, with each species using just the right amount of resources they needed to survive, we are destroying in a mere two hundred or less, by consuming more and more resources for the same functions. And we accomplish all of this in the name of development!” Rohan Wijesinha

To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we take a look at how are women faring in Sri Lanka.
“A woman is raped every 90 minutes and 97 per cent of rapists face no legal consequences. Three to five children are raped every day. Ninety five per cent of women are sexually harassed in public transportation. Forty four per cent of pregnant women are beaten at home. More than two out of three women believe that they cannot refuse sex with their husbands.”

Minoli de Soysa

People in the north and east who have lost relatives on the war are denied an opportunity to mourn their dead.

“We are forced to remember they are human. We must remember their stories. We must remember the “why”. We must remember the loss of life. We must remember that they were all Sri Lankans. That way we can ensure we never force another Sri Lankan to take up arms against their own.” - Sarah Kabir

The Human Rights Commission reports on a study done into the conditions in prisons to reveal a cruel and inhumane system that tramples on prisoners’ rights. “The use of violence by prison officers for the maintenance of discipline and order was reported from all prisons visited. Prisoners said they are beaten using bats and batons and subjected to verbal abuse.” - Groundviews

The fight against the second wave of COVID-19 with the military in charge leads to allegations of authoritarianism and the trampling of human rights.

“Going by past experiences, the military can play a role in disaster settings that is part of a coordinated response but concerns at present revolve around whether the pandemic is used to dislodge Sri Lanka’s civil service and legitimize some action that may have dire consequences.” - Bhavani Fonseka

Earlier warnings of riots in prisons over Covid-19 went unheeded and results in the death of 11 inmates at the Mahara prison.

“The Mahara prison violence has shocked the nation and stirred feelings of disbelief and indignation. A wide cross section of people and groups – class, ethnic and political – want to know how so many inmates, under the twenty-four hour, protection and care of the state, could have been killed and injured in one tragic incident.” - Bishop Duleep de Chickera

Nine months after the first Covid-19 wave began, the government is yet to relax its rule on forcible cremations, stubbornly asserting that burials can cause the spread of the disease despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Why?
“For a Government brought to power on the wings of rampant anti-Muslim sentiment after the Easter Sunday bombings, this is a familiar playbook. The strategy could not only prove critical to its political survival in the months ahead but in the end game, it may even be the regime’s only trump card.”

Dharisha Bastians

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