Sri Lanka ordered government schools across the nation to shut Monday, just a week after they re-opened, following a surge in new coronavirus cases.
The country has reported just 2,617 cases with 11 deaths, but army chief Shavendra Silva said nearly half the 1,100 residents and staff at a drug rehab facility near the capital had tested positive in the past week, and some visitors may also have been infected.
At least 16 cases had emerged in villages elsewhere across the nation, officials said, most in the central-northern region.
“Based on the direction of health authorities, it is decided to close schools this week,” the education ministry said in a statement, adding that private colleges were also encouraged to shut their doors.
“We will review the situation next week.”
Postal voting for next month’s parliamentary elections would be delayed in villages affected by the virus, the independent election commission said.
Sri Lanka’s ruling party on Sunday called off its rallies ahead of the upcoming poll and postponed the re-opening of the international airport, which was planned for early August.
A repatriation programme that has brought home some 12,000 Sri Lankans from overseas has also been suspended.
Sri Lanka’s ruling party Sunday called off its rallies ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections and delayed the international airport’s reopening over a surge in virus cases.
The South Asian country of 21 million lifted its coronavirus lockdown in late June after declaring there was no longer any community spread of the virus.
But a swathe of cases emerged last week, including an outbreak at a drug rehabilitation centre last week that saw 253 patients test positive in a single night.
“All public meetings where the president and the prime minister were due to attend today, tomorrow and the day after have been cancelled,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party said in a statement.
Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda is the country’s prime minister.
The party said all their candidates were also told to call off upcoming public gatherings ahead of the August 5 poll.
Aviation Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said Sunday the international airport, which authorities had planned to reopen on August 1, would remain closed.
“We have decided in the interest of safety and well-being of our citizens to put off the reopening of airports,” he said.
A repatriation programme that has brought home some 12,000 Sri Lankans from overseas so far would also be suspended, Ranatunga added.
The elections were to be held on April 25, but were postponed twice before being rescheduled for August.
The country has reported 2,605 cases with 11 deaths so far.
Sri Lanka’s central bank on Thursday cut interest rates for the fifth time this year in a new bid to breathe life into the coronavirus-stricken economy.
The Central Bank of Sri Lanka monetary board reduced its lending rate by 100 basis points to 5.5 percent. The deposit rate was cut by the same amount to 4.5 percent.
A bank statement said the board wanted to “aggressively enhance lending to productive sectors of the economy, which would reinforce support to COVID-19 hit businesses as well as to the broader economy”.
Sri Lanka’s economy has been slumbering since last year’s Easter Sunday suicide bombings by militant Islamists which badly hit tourism.
Sri Lanka’s economic growth slowed to 2.3 percent last year compared to 3.3 percent in 2018.
The government imposed a nationwide coronavirus lockdown on March 20 which lasted until last month and that has extended the damage to the tourism industry.
The International Monetary Fund in April predicted the economy would contract by 0.5 percent in 2020.
Faced with a serious foreign exchange crisis, the country has slapped an indefinite ban on non-essential imports, including vehicles.
The bank said this had helped stabilise the local currency which hit record lows in April prompting the government to ask public employees to donate their May salary to the state.
Measles and rubella have been eradicated from Sri Lanka and the Maldives after decades of immunisation programmes, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.
“Coming at a time when the entire world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, this success is encouraging and demonstrates the importance of joint efforts,” WHO regional director Khetrapal Singh said in a statement.
The Maldives recorded its last endemic case of measles in 2009 and rubella in October 2015, the global health body said.
Sri Lanka’s last endemic cases of measles and rubella were reported in May 2016 and March 2017 respectively, it added.
There has been no evidence of endemic transmission of the two viruses for over three years “in the presence of a well performing surveillance system,” the WHO said.
Bhutan, North Korea and East Timor were also declared to be measles-free.
The declarations came amid measles outbreaks in developed countries, including the United States.
An anti-vaxxer movement in the US and elsewhere has surged with the social media-fuelled rise of conspiracy theories.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted healthcare systems in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the WHO added, including immunisation and surveillance programmes.
It said it was committed to supporting member countries and partners “fully revive” such activities.
The United States said Friday it would refuse entry to Sri Lanka’s army chief over “credible” evidence of human rights violations in the bloody 2009 finale to the civil war.
Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, whose appointment last year drew wide international criticism, will be ineligible to visit the United States, as will his immediate family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“The allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“We urge the Sri Lankan government to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation,” he said.
Silva was the commanding officer of an army division in the island’s northern war-zone in the final months of the military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
Rights groups say some 40,000 ethnic Tamils were killed in mass atrocities as government forces seized Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north.
The United Nations, in a report into the allegations, said Silva played a major role in orchestrating war crimes.
The 2009 offensive delivered a death blow to the Tamil Tigers, whose nearly four-decade campaign for a separate homeland had killed 100,000 people and was characterized by the rebels’ bloody suicide attacks.
Pompeo nonetheless said that the United States hoped to maintain security cooperation with Sri Lanka, which last year was rocked by Easter Sunday bombings by Islamist extremists.
“We deeply value our partnership with the Sri Lankan government and the long-standing democratic tradition we share with the Sri Lankan people,” Pompeo said.
Sri Lanka’s successive governments have resisted calls for an independent investigation into the conduct of troops during the final months of the conflict.
Sri Lankan authorities have arrested a former minister who allegedly recorded 100,000 phone calls, the sometimes lewd and compromising contents of which were leaked on social media.
In what has become a major scandal, Ranjan Ramanayake is heard discussing court cases with judges, police, politicians and local celebrities in some of the recordings.
Police, who seized hard drives from Ramanayake’s home, said they were investigating whether the recordings had been used for blackmail or other criminal activity.
The opposition lawmaker, 56, who was remanded in custody earlier this week, has said he is being targeted for speaking out against corruption.
In some of the leaked audio tapes, Ramanayake is heard slating the leadership of his own opposition United National Party, which has since suspended his membership.
Parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya said the scandal demonstrated the moral degradation of the otherwise conservative Buddhist-majority nation of 21 million people.
“Recording private conversations as well as broadcasting them (illegally) shows the moral decay in our country,” Jayasuriya said in a statement urging the clergy to encourage higher ethical standards in society.
The leaks have already led to the suspension of a magistrate and disciplinary action against a high court judge, officials said. Both had reportedly discussed ongoing cases with Ramanayake.
A senior police detective who had also had discussions with the politician has been suspended pending an internal inquiry.
Much of the leaked conversations suggested political interference in cases against senior members of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration between 2005 and 2015. His brother Gotabaya won the November presidential election.
Official sources said the leaks could lead to a judicial review of some of the ongoing cases as well as those that have concluded unfavourably for Rajapaksa loyalists.
The Attorney General’s office said Ramanayake was in custody for offences committed under the constitution for “interference with the functions of Judges.”
Sri Lanka president Gotabaya Rajapaksa said Thursday the alleged kidnapping of a Swiss embassy staffer which triggered a diplomatic spat between Colombo and Bern had been concocted to discredit his election victory.
A Sri Lankan national working for the Swiss mission in Colombo was arrested Monday for allegedly falsely claiming she had been abducted and sexually assaulted by unidentified attackers on November 25.
The alleged abduction happened a day after a Sri Lankan police inspector investigating cases involving the Rajapaksa family sought asylum in Switzerland.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa — who was elected president last month — told Colombo-based foreign correspondents Thursday that he was the real “victim” of the saga.
“In this case, the victim is me because immediately after my election, this story came up,” he said, giving details of the Swiss embassy staffer’s movements on the day she claimed she was held against her will.
“It is very clear it is a planned thing to discredit me and the government.”
Rajapaksa said he did not believe the Swiss embassy itself had any role in making the allegations and insisted he did not want anyone to create tensions between the two countries.
Switzerland on Monday criticised the embassy worker’s arrest and “lack of due process in the case”, and asked for evidence that she had faked her claims.
Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis also spoke to his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena about the case, the foreign ministry said this week.
Corruption charges against Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa were dropped Thursday by a court, which handed his passport back as he acquired immunity from prosecution after being elected last weekend.
Under Sri Lanka’s constitution, no court proceedings can be maintained against a serving president. However, action could be taken after he leaves office.
The High Court had indicted Rajapaksa in September last year on charges of siphoning off 33 million rupees (around $185,000) in state funds to build a memorial for his parents.
The court also released his passport which had been impounded, allowing him to make his first overseas trip as president to India next week at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Rajapaksa was being tried before a special court established by the former government to expedite high-profile corruption cases. Rajapaksa, 70, had pleaded not guilty.
Six others were also charged along with Rajapaksa and their fate will be decided when the case is taken up for a hearing on January 9, the court said.
Official sources said Rajapaksa was also entitled to claim foreign sovereign immunity in respect to two civil cases filed against him in California for allegedly causing the death of a senior newspaper editor and torture.
He has denied responsibility for the killing of anti-establishment editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009 and torturing suspects when he headed the defence ministry under brother Mahinda’s presidency between 2005 and 2015.
Wickrematunge was murdered days before he was due to testify in a defamation case brought by Gotabaya Rajapaksa after his paper accused him of corruption in a deal to buy MiG jets from Ukraine.
Rajapaksa was elected president on Saturday and was due later Thursday to swear in his brother Mahinda as prime minister.
Gunmen fired at buses carrying minority Muslim voters on Saturday as Sri Lankans elected a new president, with the powerful Rajapaksa clan eyeing a comeback seven months after Islamist extremists staged deadly bombings.
Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial in the close election, and the attack in the northwest of the island — in which no one was injured — was likely aimed at deterring people from heading to the polls.
But election chief Mahinda Deshapriya said over 80 percent of the 15.99 million electorate was estimated to have turned out Saturday, compared to 81.5 percent at the previous presidential poll in 2015.
“Comparatively this is the most peaceful presidential election we have had in this country,” Deshapriya told reporters at the end of the 10-hour voting period.
However, two women voters were injured when unidentified attackers pelted stones at their bus in the northwest region of Medawachchiya, police said.
The victims were travelling in a convoy of busses which had come under gunfire in the same region earlier in the day.
In the first attack, assailants burned tyres on the road and set up makeshift roadblocks before shooting at and pelting with stones two busses in a convoy of more than 100.
In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, meanwhile, police said they arrested 10 men they suspected of “trying to create trouble”, while also complaining that the army had illegally set up roadblocks that could stop people getting to polling stations.
Such tactics are nothing new in Sri Lanka, which emerged from a horrific civil war only a decade ago. At the 2015 election, there was a series of explosions in the north.
Supporters from rival parties meanwhile clashed in a tea plantation area 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of the capital Colombo, with two people taken to hospital with cuts, the election commission said.
Terminator vs Padman
Some 85,000 police were on duty for the election with a record 35 candidates running for president, an office with considerable power similar to the French political system.
Results could come as early as midday (0630 GMT) on Sunday if there is a clear winner, but Deshapriya said floods in three out of the 22 electoral districts had disrupted counting and warned of delays in releasing the final tallies.
One of the two frontrunners is grey-haired retired army lieutenant colonel Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, younger brother to the charismatic but controversial Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005-15.
Dubbed the “Terminator” by his own family, “Gota” is promising an infrastructure blitz and better security in the wake of the Islamist attacks in April that killed 269 people.
“Gotabaya will protect our country,” construction worker Wasantha Samarajjeew, 51, said as he cast his ballot in Colombo.
His main rival is Sajith Premadasa, 52, from the governing liberal United National Party (UNP), son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa.
He is also pushing development and security as well as free sanitary pads for poor women, earning him the nickname “Padman” after a famous Bollywood movie.
The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for defeating Tamil Tiger separatists and ending a 37-year civil war in 2009.
They are detested and feared by many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. The conflict ended with some 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by the army.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, Gotabaya was defence secretary and effectively ran the security forces, even allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off political rivals, journalists and others.
He denies the allegations.
What also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China under Mahinda Rajapaksa, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014.
Under its Belt and Road Initiative spanning Asia and beyond, China loaned and granted Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, many of which turned into white elephants and became mired in corruption allegations.
Mahinda says credit was unavailable elsewhere.
Western capitals “should give a fair chance to us”, Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, told reporters. “They can’t be monitors of this country. They must be partners.”