By Sandun Jayawardana
Not often does a Government make a complete fool of its own leaders but the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) did that in spectacularly farcical fashion this week by embarrassing Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa over the controversial “cremation only” policy for COVID-19 dead.
The bizarre saga unfolded in Parliament after Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Colombo District MP S.M. Marikkar raised a point of order on Wednesday to draw the House’s attention to an answer given by COVID Control State Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle the day before. Mr Marikkar reminded that the State Minister had stated that there was no evidence that COVID-19 was transmitted through groundwater. If that was the case, Mr. Marikkar wanted to know whether the Government would allow the burial of COVID-19 victims.
The Government has repeatedly cited fears of groundwater pollution as the main reason why it does not permit the burial of those who die of COVID-19.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena moved to order Mr Marikkar to sit down, stating that the matter was not a point of order and that the SJB MP was “trying to create an unnecessary issue.” Despite the Speaker’s ruling, PM Rajapaksa still opted to answer, telling the MP, “regarding your question, what I can say is that burials will be allowed.”
The statement generated plenty of buzz. Some television channels opted to carry the statement as a “Breaking News” announcing that the Government had decided to allow the burial of COVID-19 victims. Muslim MPs supporting the Government and the Opposition expressed gratitude in Parliament.
The Premier’s apparent assurance also generated international headlines. Foreign diplomats in Colombo took to Twitter to praise the apparent change in policy. Even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is due to make an official visit to the island later this month (and is also due to address Parliament), welcomed the move.
Some commentators, however, noted that whatever assurances given by Mr Rajapaksa would amount to nothing without the Government first revoking the gazette notification specifying cremation as the only method of disposal for bodies of COVID victims. A fresh gazette would have to be issued allowing for burials as well.
Colombo District SJB MP Mujibur Rahuman raised this issue on Thursday, pointing out that there was still no gazette notification allowing for burials despite the PM’s assurance the day before. He queried when the Government intends to issue one. At this point, State Minister Fernandopulle said the Health Ministry could not decide on its own whether to allow burials for COVID victims and that it was currently being studied by a “technical committee.” She added that they would have to go by the recommendations of this committee.
The State Minister’s statement completely contradicted PM Rajapaksa’s assurance just 24 hours before that the Government would allow burials to be held.
Opposition Muslim MPs were incensed. A furious Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem observed that the Prime Minister “made a categorical statement” in Parliament the day before that burials would be allowed.
He lashed out at the Government for again taking cover behind its so-called “technical committee,” which he claimed was made up of “pseudo scientists.”
“Who’s better than the Prime Minister to make a decision on behalf of the Government, and who are these so-called Health Ministry experts who are blocking this?” he queried.
He warned that the Government was creating unnecessary racial tension in the country and dragging it into an abyss by such conduct.
Mr Hakeem implored the Government not to drag its feet on the matter and to quickly take a mature and considered decision. “And please don’t insult the Prime Minister for God’s sake!” he added.
Earlier that day, before any of the drama unfolded, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived in Parliament with his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and briefly attended the sessions. The gesture was significant given the fissures that have opened up in the Government ranks recently, with several SLPP MPs claiming some sections were trying to stir up conflict between the President and the PM.
Nevertheless, the Government did not explain in Parliament as to why the PM had given an assurance that burials would be allowed, though some SLPP MPs dug an even bigger hole for themselves and their Government by claiming at a news briefing that what the PM meant was that the dead were allowed to be buried and that he did not mean COVID victims could be buried: a ludicrous explanation that made Mr Rajapaksa, a former President and one of the most experienced politicians in the country, look like a child who stated the obvious.