Ironically, geopolitics between India, Pakistan and China will be the deciding factor and not religion, in determining burial rights for Sri Lankan citizens. Imran Khan’s arrival has seen the Muslim community pin on him their hopes on gaining their legitimate right to bury their COVID dead. There is absolutely no science behind the denial of burial and even Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had to eat humble pie after he announced in Parliament that burial rights would be granted
Sri Lanka’s expected fallout with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva is serious. The Government is looking for a scapegoat to blame the fallout on someone, and this year it is likely to be blamed on the Muslims because of the cremation controversy. The Government could sail through the next two years with this rhetoric, making the man on the street forget the other issues that weigh him down.
It is expected that the Organisation of Islamic Countries will vote against the resolution brought in by the core group at OHCHR and will favour Sri Lanka. Many civil activists see this as a repeat of the treachery to democracy by the six MPs from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress. This infamous six who are seen as betrayers of democracy for casting their vote for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, are today like the arecanut, stuck between the blades of its cutter.
Pinning hopes on Imran Khan
Ironically, geopolitics between India, Pakistan and China will be the deciding factor and not religion, in determining burial rights for Sri Lankan citizens. Imran Khan’s arrival has seen the Muslim community pin on him their hopes on gaining their legitimate right to bury their COVID dead.
Khan’s loud rhetoric on Islamophobia by the West is being put to the test in Sri Lanka, and his stand on Muslim burial rights will expose him to the world when his Islamic stand may be compromised for geopolitical reasons. There is no doubt about his ability to garner the support of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, and it is believed that his visit is to discuss the strategy in Geneva this February and March.
Muslims, and even Christians, wait with baited breath to see if his visit will result in them being able to bury their loved ones – or their cremated. Will the Rajapaksa Government offer him Muslim burial on a bouquet or wreath? That’s the million dollar question for Muslims in Sri Lanka.
There is absolutely no science behind the denial of burial and even the Prime Minister had to eat humble pie after he announced in Parliament that burial rights would be granted. The Technical Committee appointed by the Ministry of Health and headed by Dr. Channa Perera, seems to more powerful than the Prime Minister and the Parliament. What an insult to the illustrious political career of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa spanning over 50 years.
The absolute majority of the 6.9 million who voted for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) did so only because of experienced campaigner Rajapaksa. The nation expected him to retire after the disastrous defeat in the 2015 presidential election, but the admirable warrior bounced back and led his party to victory by winning the election for his younger sibling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution brought in by the Maithri-Ranil Government deprived him to contest the presidential election for a third time. He proved his popularity and political acumen by re-entering Parliament as a member and taking over as Prime Minister. However, one wonders if he kicked himself by introducing the 20th Amendment which stripped the power the Parliament had after the 19th Amendment.
Muslim bashing has been the modus operandi of political powers that held sway in Sri Lanka post-2009, starting from the Digana riots to the aftermath of the 21 April bombings in 2019. The last two elections saw probably the worst racist campaigns in Sri Lanka’s history. Muslims were barred from nominations except one who was close to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
This strategy worked, with 6.9 million voting them to power, influenced by racist ‘save the nation’ rhetoric spewed by certain politicians, monks and media, who had their own agenda to fulfil. The terror of 21/4 was apportioned fully on the entire Muslim community with the supposed links to ISIS by the bombers who had called themselves Muslim.
The Muslims have never had any conflict with the Catholics and Christians in this country, and there was absolutely no Islamic cause for any terror by Muslims. The Muslim community even refused Islamic burial rites for the terrorists as Islam totally forbids killing innocents even during war. They were buried by the authorities with no religious rites by the Muslim Community.
With the Muslim bashing that was orchestrated, they rode to a comfortable victory at the Presidential Elections, cashing in on the unfounded fear the election rhetoric whipped up – that Muslims will take over Sri Lanka if a strong government does not hold the reins of power.
‘One country, one law’
With the impressive victory of the SLPP, the Muslim bashing continued with campaigns for ‘one country, one law,’ depriving not only Muslims, but also other minorities of their personal laws which affected only their personal lives, and which did not impede on the Common Law which overrides all personal laws anyway.
With COVID bringing the whole world to its knees, the racists found a new issue to attack Muslims and Christians, by denying burial of COVID dead or suspected deaths due to COVID. Islam forbids cremation and insists that a body should be handled very gently and buried. With the forced cremation policy, nearly 300 Muslims have been denied their religious right of burial. All engagement with Government authorities by Muslim civil, religious and business groups has totally failed.
The first Muslim COVID death occurred on the 30 March 2020, and the Quarantine Act in force allowed burial or cremation. Some racist elements denied burial claiming that the coronavirus can contaminate ground water sources. In spite of a lack of scientific evidence for this unfounded belief, and thousands dying of contagious diseases having been buried throughout history, forced cremation still continues.
Almost 300 Muslims have died of COVID so far of over 350-plus COVID deaths in the country. The disproportionate numbers in relation to the demographics in the country indicate the need for research on another social issue that may be looming to haunt Sri Lanka.
The COVID-19 virus was first identified in December 2019 and all the countries of the world allowed burial of those who died of it. The Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients dated 27 March 2020 allowed for burial of dead bodies under certain conditions.
Four days later, on 31 March this was changed, disallowing burial and requiring that all COVID-19 victims be cremated (The Extraordinary Gazette notification no. 2170/8 of 11 April 2020).
This denied the right for Muslims and Christians (and some from the Buddhist/Tamil communities) to bury their dead according to their religious teachings, cultural practices or personal wishes. This position of the Government is unscientific and absolutely wrong due to the following reasons.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its guidelines dated 24 March 2020 regarding the disposal of COVID-19 infected bodies, has clearly stated burial as one of the safe methods of disposal. The document states the claims that the virus spread directly through groundwater have not been scientifically substantiated, and that there is no indication that the virus could be transmitted through drinking water.
The WHO, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of United States (CDC) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) have issued clear and extensive guidelines on handling dead bodies for cremation or burial.
On 24 December 2020, the Secretary to the Ministry of Health of the Sri Lanka Government appointed an Expert Team of the country’s leading immunologists, virologists and microbiologists to provide their recommendations on whether burial can be allowed.
These experts in their report clearly stated that the virus cannot replicate in a dead body and the remaining virus would die over a period of time. It stated that the virus infection is not a water-borne disease, and therefore contamination of water is very remote. The Expert Team recommended cremation or burial with guidelines. They also emphasised that the dignity of the dead and their families should be respected and protected.
The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL), one of the leading medical institutions in their positional paper, voiced their specialist opinion. It stated that with more than 80 million global infection cases and 1.7 million deaths, there is no evidence in the nearly 85,000 published scientific literature on COVID-19 that the virus was transmitted through a dead body.
Further, the spread of the virus directly through groundwater has not been scientifically substantiated. They concluded that cremation or burial should be allowed within the strict guidelines recommended by the Ministry of Health. Each citizen of Sri Lanka should be allowed to be cremated or buried as per their wish and the family’s desire, within the strict guidelines recommended by the Ministry of Health.
The virus may spread first, if at all, through hospital sewage, waste from isolation and quarantine centres, and faecal-oral transmission, if it was to spread from dead bodies.
The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), another leading medical institution, in their response to the issue of COVID-19 death management in Sri Lanka had expressed their views in favour of burial.
There are no reports of the virus being infective via ground water. Even in the case of severe waterborne diseases like cholera, burial of infected dead bodies was allowed. It is unlikely that the virus could remain infectious within a dead body for any significant period of time. The Council of the Sri Lanka Medical Association is of the view that burial of COVID-19 dead bodies could be permitted in Sri Lanka.
Further, it stated that disposal of COVID-19 dead bodies has affected ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. In view of the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka, it is essential to have a proper policy for disposal of the dead which is acceptable to all. Almost 200 countries in the world have buried the COVID-19-infected dead bodies and are continuing to do so. There is not a single piece of evidence that ground water has been contaminated so far due to burying COVID dead.
Human rights violations
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in its latest report dated 27 January 2021, titled ‘Sri Lanka on alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations’, reports as follows:
“The UN High Commissioner is deeply concerned by the trends emerging over the past year, which may represent early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation. With regard to burial, the High Commissioner notes that WHO guidance stresses that “cremation is a cultural choice”.
“As stated above, the World Health Organisation in its guidelines dated 24 March 2020 regarding the disposal of COVID-19 infected bodies have clearly laid down that burial as one of the safe methods of disposal.”
The following four UN Special Rapporteurs:
(i) Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief;
(ii) the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
(iii) the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and,
(iv) the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism
Their communication to the President of Sri Lanka stated as follows:
“We are concerned that the amendment is inconsistent with the Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 guideline provided by WHO guidelines. Furthermore, we are concerned of the lack of consideration provided and the lack of sensitivity in the MoH guidelines to different communities and their religious and cultural practices.” The Special Rapporteurs reiterated the point that the WHO guidelines provides that people who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on 20 November 2020, highlighted that any restriction on a fundamental right, even at a time of crisis, must be imposed under strict justifications. It recommended to permit burial of bodies of persons who succumbed to the COVID-19 virus, while adhering to required health guidelines. It also urged the Government to ensure compliance with the Constitution of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.
Recognised individuals consisting of professionals, academics, lawyers, specialists, intellects, reverend priests and 29 civil society organisations issued a statement urging the Government to permit burial of the COVID-19 dead.
They said that the Government’s ongoing forcible cremation policy without proper scientific evidence has caused much suffering and grievance to certain religious groups. The statement called upon the Government to enable those from religious minorities to bury their dead.
The above provides a synopsis of the ongoing human rights violation by the forced cremation policy of the Sri Lanka Government which is not based on science, hurting the sentiments of Muslims, Christians and other citizens who choose to bury their loved ones, and is dangerously hindering peaceful coexistence in Sri Lanka.