Sri Lanka sailing in troubled waters

Colombo Edited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Feb 27, 2021, 04:10 PM IST

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Photograph:(PTI)

Story highlights

The Lankan government is considering a controversial law, one that would ban burqas in public. The cabinet has been consulted and with their permission, this proposal could make its way to the Parliament

Pressure politics, if used wisely, can be a powerful tool. The best example is Sri Lanka. In April last year, the country introduced a new rule. All coronavirus victims would be cremated and no burials. 

There was no scientific explanation for it. A few Buddhist monks claimed burying the victims would contaminate the ground and the government agreed. A classic case of appeasement politics but they probably didn't anticipate the backlash. Rights groups and community leaders were appalled. 

The organisation of Islamic cooperation expressed concern that Muslims on the island were being denied dignity in death. In December, 19 bodies were forcefully cremated, including that of a baby. 

The world community turned on Colombo. The Lankan Government had backed itself into a corner. Now, the order has been revoked and there are no more forced cremations. Muslims are free to bury their relatives. The pressure campaign worked but there's more to this story than activism. 

Sri Lanka is facing a stern test at the UN Human Rights Council. There's a new resolution doing the rounds that slams the country for its dismal reconciliation efforts. 

It's been 12 years since the civil war ended. The Tamils are still awaiting justice. Far from punishing the war criminals, the government is rewarding them. Several former generals accused of war crimes have been appointed to government jobs to avoid being indicted at the UN, Sri Lanka needs help. It needs to gather enough votes to kill the resolution by reversing the burial ban, Colombo is wooing Islamic nations. Many of whom have a seat at the council. So while the global outcry definitely helped political convenience too played a part.   

Here's another reason why we can't call this a change of heart. The Lankan government is considering a controversial law, one that would ban burqas in public. The cabinet has been consulted and with their permission, this proposal could make its way to the Parliament. 

It's one step forward and two steps back. Sri Lanka's justification for the burqa ban is a time-tested one. 

This has become the norm under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Stigmatisation has been used as a state policy while the government drums up anti-minority sentiments. 

It seems oblivious to real issues like China's expanding debt trap and Sri Lanka's finances are in a shambles. The treasury is almost drained. Sri Lanka's solution is to borrow from China. The country is seeking $ 2.2 billion dollars from Chinese banks. 

Borrowing from China is never a good idea as it invariably ends with Beijing taking over strategic assets. Sri Lanka should know this because it's happened to them already. 

The Hambantota fiasco where China holds a 99-year lease on the strategic port and if reports are true, there is an option to extend it by another 99 years. Colombo wants to renegotiate the deal but Beijing isn't interested. Every time, there is a new project in Sri Lanka. Chinese companies are first-off the block as they secure contracts with exorbitant bids and set up strategic Chinese presence all over the island. This is exactly what's happening in northern Sri Lanka. Three islands are being developed as clean energy hubs. The contracts have been given to Chinese firms but here's where it gets interesting. 

These islands are just 48 kilometres from mainland India. How convenient that China's strategic and economic interests converge so seamlessly! Right now, Sri Lanka finds itself in a vulnerable spot. It needs diplomatic backing at the United Nations and financial support to keep the country running. 

It's not an ideal situation for any sovereign nation but then again, that's where misplaced priorities get you.