A Ban On Burials – A Prelude To A Pogrom? By Lionel Bopage

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….. the role of human rights is vital in COVID-19 responses. Indeed, COVID-19 is not just a global health emergency; it is a human rights emergency. Around the world, the pandemic, and responses to it, have collided with entrenched economic, social and cultural inequalities, at times exacerbating vulnerability and undermining the realisation of rights. – Dr Tawanda Hondora, (A/g) Head, Human Rights Unit. The Commonwealth Secretariat[1]

To combat the Covid-19 pandemic that is gripping the island, the current Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has introduced an unnecessary and discriminatory ban on burials which clearly discriminates against the Christian and Muslim communities.

GOSL has done this by promulgating on 31 March of last year the Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients and amending  it later by adding a new clause: ‘The body should be cremated within 24 hours (preferably within 12 hours’. This was done without any proven evidence from the relevant experts and without any community consultation.

The Government has insisted on this ban contrary to the advice of the overwhelming majority of experts in the field, like the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL), which states that there is no evidence that proves burials are contagious. The CCPSL view was reinforced by the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SMLA), which stated that ‘the virus is unlikely to remain infectious within a dead body,’ pointing out that there was no scientific evidence to show that burials are a health hazard. The guidelines of the peak international medical body, the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that burials during the pandemic pose no health threat to the community[2]. The Chair of the Committee of Experts advising GOSL on this issue, Professor Jennifer Perera, advised the Government that it was safe to bury the dead if certain safety protocols were adhered to. Consequently, Professor Perera has been subjected to a concerted campaign of denigration and abuse[3].  

According to scholars of Islam, The practice of cremation violates the core tenets of their faith that prohibit cremation. Cremation is seen as a desecration of the deceased. To add insult to injury the bereaved have been slapped with a cremation fee of 48,000 rupees, which many cannot afford to pay[4]. 

Then why has the government stubbornly persisted with its discriminatory policy in the face of overwhelming evidence from the experts in the field? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the GOSL is playing the ethnic/religious card as previous governments have done to stoke the fears of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community, so its own nefarious, authoritarian and corrupt practices would not be scrutinised by the electorate.

Discrimination against the Muslim community has sadly been an ongoing sore on the political, social, cultural and religious fabric of the Nation in the recent few decades. There have been innumerable instances of fear-mongering, which have incited several riots against the Muslim community. State of emergency was declared in response to the communal unrest between Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists and the beleaguered Muslim community. One of the worst incidents, which occurred in June 2014 and then in 2018, resulted in a number of deaths, many more injured, properties such as homes, shops, factories, mosques looted and set on fire and many hundreds being made homeless. 

In most of these lethal and toxic incidents, the bloody hands of fundamentalist Buddhist groups were all over them. Their deadly playbook is always the same: start a social media campaign in which false information such as Muslim-run cafes offer food and Muslim medical professionals working for sterilising the majority community is circulated, whipping up fear in sections of the majority community with stories, whereupon a riot ensues. The response of GOSL and the security forces is also depressingly predictable – observe the violence and intervene when it is too late to prevent the carnage. In the majority of such incidents, they prosecute the victims and give a judicial pass to the perpetrators[5]. 

Even when a case goes to court, sentences are diluted, and we even have had the unedifying spectacle of Presidents pardoning notorious culprits who have been behind many such murderous attacks. One such example relates to the Venerable Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero, leader of the hard-line Sinhala Buddhist Group Bodu Bala Sena – Troops of the Buddhist Force (BBS[6]). The release sent shivers down the spine not only of the Muslim community but also of the Tamil community.

Prejudice against the Muslim community has also infected the top echelons of the bureaucratic and security institutions of the country. In late 2019 a circular by the Secretary of the Minister of Public Administration J. J. Rathnasiri issued a circular that imposed regulations on how public servants should dress, which discriminated against all non-Buddhist women, particularly Muslim women[7]. The police officer in charge of keeping the peace in the North Western province where many anti-Muslim riots took place, Deputy Inspector-General Kithsiri Jayalath, had, without conducting a proper investigation and with not a shred of evidence, except prejudicial rumours, claimed that Doctor Mohammed Shafi had crushed the fallopian tubes of 4,000 women, thus rendering them infertile. When an official investigation was instigated it found no evidence against Dr Shafi. In spite of this, or because of it, DIG Jayalath was promoted as Acting Deputy Inspector General of Puttalam, a district where there is a sizable Muslim population[8]. These incidents described are just the tip of an iceberg of discrimination.

The current mob holding the levers of power, instead of dousing the flames of fear and bigotry, exploited them to gain power and the ability to change the constitution. In doing so, they were able to expand the already considerable powers of the Executive Presidency. This further eroded the separation of powers, enfeebling the rule of law, with political decisions becoming even more opaque, the unaccountability of the security forces being even more entrenched, and the rights of minorities being relentlessly trampled upon. 

Attacks on the multi-faith and multicultural tenor are sadly an ongoing sore on the fabric of civic society. Last month a memorial by the Tamil community to commemorate their dead killed in the long civil war was bulldozed by the authorities. This act of vandalism has opened deep wounds in the Tamil community who have suffered and are still suffering direct and indirect discrimination since the country was granted independence in 1948.

It is in this sordid historical light we need to view the ban on burials, a direct threat and affront to the multicultural and multi-religious tenor of the nation. The current actions against the Muslim community of ethnic scapegoating, scaremongering, direct discrimination without a shred of evidence, the riots and the looting and burning of Muslim residences and businesses, hounding them out of public life, during the dying stages of the previous government[9], is eerily reminiscent of the anti-Semitic rantings of the Nazis in 1930’s Germany; and the current irrational and wilful fulminations and actions of the former President of the United States and his feral white supporters. The government instead of dampening these tensions has ominously ratcheted them up.

This has raised alarm bells amongst many of the country’s citizens of good faith residing in the country and abroad be they be Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim. They have organised, petitioned, agitated, and demonstrated against this patently discriminatory ban. It is vital we raise awareness about this evolving and intensifying situation that could cause serious and dire consequences to the social fabric of the Island. 

At a more local level, the current attacks against the Muslim community are scarily indicative of what happened to the Tamil population and its elected representatives and that led to the July 1983 pogrom and the 26 year long civil war afterwards. The President, his family and his band of courtiers, by shamelessly stoking the fears of the majority of community and discrediting and ignoring the leadership and aspirations and rights of the Muslim community, could ignite another violent conflagration. Unless the citizenry of the Island come together to agitate and demand the upholding of the rule of law, non-discriminatory practices, accountability, transparency and social justice, being the bedrock of the nation, a replay of the country’s violent past appear inevitable. The time to act is now.

[1] Hondora, Dr Twanda (21 January 2021). A written response to the letter sent by Australian Advocacy for Good Governance in Sri Lanka entitled: Appeal to end the forced cremation of COVID-19 victims of Sri Lanka.   

[2] Ellis-Petersin, Hannah, ‘Muslims in Sri Lanka “denied justice” over forced cremations of COVID victims’: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/04/muslims-srilanka-justice-forced-cremations-covid-victims.

[3] Derana Campaign Against Prof. Jennifer Perera Revealed: Experts Committee Recommendation on Burial of Covid Victims Irks Government,’ Colombo Telegraph, January 3 2021: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/derana-campaign-against-prof-jennifer-perera-revealed-experts-committee-recommendation-on-burial-of-covid-victims-irks-govt/

[4] Op. cit.: Ellis Petersin. 

[5] A typical example of a litany of cases where the authorities have cast a blind eye. See: Ranawaka, Purninma , ‘Asigiri prelate calls for stoning of Muslims – but remains  immune to ICCPRA Act violations,’ Colombo Telegraph, 23 June 2019: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/asgiri-prelate-calls-for-stoning-of-muslims-but-remains-immune-to-iccpr-act-violations/

[6] Sri Lanka’s hard-line Buddhist monk walks out of jail after pardon. Reuters 24 May 2019: http://www.island.lk/indexphp.

[7] Easter Attacks PSC: Public Administration Secretary Makes Shameful Display of Racial Bias in SLAS,’ Colombo Telegraph, June 13 2019: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/easter-attacks-psc-public-administration-secretary-makes-shameful-display-of-racial-bias-in-slas/

[8] Sri Lanka top cop on the mat over sterilisation scare,’ Economy Next, June 23 2019: https://economynext.com/sri-lanka-top-cop-on-the-mat-over-sterilisation-scare-43583/

[9] Jeyaraj, D.B.S. (2019) Mass resignations of nine government ministers and Muslim politics undercurrents. Daily Mirror 8 June, 2019. Retrieved: http://www.daily mirror.lk:/opinion/Mass-Resignation-nine-Govt-ministers-and-Muslim-Politics-undercurrents/172-168926

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