COLOMBO: Tens of thousands of tea plantation workers defied Sri Lanka’s coronavirus lockdown and threats from authorities on Sunday to attend the cremation of a popular trade union leader.

Television footage showed mourners weeping and jostling as they bid goodbye to Arumugam Thondaman, head of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress who died of a heart attack on Tuesday aged 55, with few wearing masks or observing social distancing.

Authorities had reimposed a lockdown on the island to forestall a large gathering for the cremation of Thondaman — who was also a government minister — in Norwood, a tea-growing area in central Sri Lanka.

Officials also threatened to prosecute the organisers of the funeral, days after the country recorded its biggest daily surge in coronavirus infections — most found in citizens repatriated last week from Kuwait.

“Even if one coronavirus infection is found among those who attended... we will prosecute all those involved in organising this public funeral,” health inspectors said in a statement.

Immediate family and loved ones were permitted to attend however, and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was also at the cremation.

Sri Lanka has reported 1,628 infections and 10 deaths from the coronavirus so far.

About half of the cases are of sailors and their family members living in a navy camp just outside the capital Colombo.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2020

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