Last week’s announcement that the Maldivian Government was considering allowing the burial of Muslim victims of COVID-19 in the Maldiveson a request by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came as a surprise to many. The fact that the small country in the Indian Ocean was looking at the request favourably was a testimony to the strong bonds that have existed between the two countries for hundreds of years.
The Sri Lankan Government has by its continued disregard of WHO guidelines permitting victims of COVID-19 to be buried has shown scant regard to the request of a section of its citizenry, namely the Muslims, to bury those who died as a result of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. It has not even made an official announcement as to the reasons for such a refusal except to take refuge behind an anonymous expert technical committee who themselves have not officially given the reasoning behind making such a serious decision.
Even the cruel and hurried cremation of a 20 day old baby against the wishes of his parents has not melted the heart of the authorities while it has caught the attention of the whole world and given Sri Lanka a great deal of bad publicity.
But the unusual request, probably the first of its kind anywhere in the history of the world, has many serious implications for Sri Lanka as a nation. It also is an admission that this multi-religious country is unwilling to follow World Health Organisation guidelines with regard to COVID-19 related deaths.
It is also an abdication of its own responsibilities towards its citizens. Although the Government’s obstinate refusal to follow the WHO guidelines without any valid reason has impacted mostly on the Muslim community, it is in reality taking away theindividual right of every citizen to decide on what form his funeral should take- whether by burial or cremation.
The WHO has clearly laid down that either option of burial or cremation is available in relation to COVID-19 deaths and that the choice rests on the near and dear ones. The State has no role and cannot encroach on these individual rights. There are many individuals other than those of the Islamic faith including Christians and Catholics who would wish to opt for burial as opposed to cremation.
What confounds the situation even more is the Muslim community has not been consulted or consent obtained before the decision to request the Maldives to take over and grant burial rights to Muslims who die due to the COVID-19 virus.
For a Government which makes much of its resistance to any attempt by the international community to revisit the last days of the armed conflict that ended in May 2009, to resort to asking a friendly country to play host to the last rites of its own citizens is hardly a manifestation of patriotism nor does it speak well for the duty of care that the State owes to its citizens.
The appeals of various sections of the International Community including the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, Human Rights and Humanitarian Organisations, a number of UN special rapporteurs not to mention large sections of fair minded citizens of the country have all fallen on the deaf years of the Government. Even the determination of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka that the denial of burial rights of COVID-19 victims is a violation of their fundamental rights has been ignored by the Government.
The irreparable damage done to the image and standing of Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world by the Government’s stand on burials cannot easily be remedied. The Government’s actions are at variance with Sri Lanka’s image as a country with a caring culture borne out of the teachings of four great religions. The country itself will unfortunately gain notoriety for the wrong reasons although the Sri Lankan people themselves retain these caring characteristics.
The Muslim community itself feels discriminated against and oppressed by the Government’s continued refusal to allow burial of COVID-19 victims despite the wisdom of international experts as embodied in the WHO guidelines. Even the confirmation by renowned virologists Professor Malik Peiris, Dr. Paba Palihawadana and Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe that there is no danger of the virus spreading as a result of burials does not seem to have had an impact on the decision makers.
The Government either does not have a clear idea of what it wants to do with regard to this issue as evident from the different and often contradictory stories coming from its spokesmen or has made up its mind to deny the right to burials and is simply pussyfooting around the issue to deceive the Muslims.
About a month back it was reported the Cabinet had taken a decision to lift the ban on burials. The Justice Minister Ali Sabry had conveyed this information to the President of the All Ceylon Jemiathul Ulema M.I. M. Rizwie Mufti but the report was contradicted by Minister Wimal Weerawansa. Minister Chamal Rajapaksa however confirmed that such a decision had been taken.
This news report was also accompanied by other reports that President Gotabaya Rajapakse had asked for land to be identified in Mannar or similar places in the dry zone for burials to take place. But nothing happened thereafter.
Then on November 11,2020 the Daily Mirror reported thatPrime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa directed health authorities to findland within a day or two and submit a report immediately. He said he would not allow this matter to be further delayed. Mr. Rajapaksa further said the burial issue of COVID-19 victims was presently a concern for all including the Catholic community and he wanted an immediate solution. No progress seems to have been made as yet with regard to this Prime Ministerial directive.
It was ajust few days after the Prime Minister gave this order to the health authorities that reports emerged of the President’s request to the Maldivian authorities to step in and facilitate the burials. However Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella on Wednesdaysaid the matter of the President’s request was never discussed with the Cabinet.
This was followed up by another contradictory story from sources close to the Government of a proposal to bury COVID-19 victims in concrete graves.
While the Muslim community apprehensively awaits the fate of any one of their loved ones succumbing to COVID-19, the Government is either at sixes and sevens or deliberately playing with Muslim sentiments. At the least the Government’s stand on burials is discriminatory of Muslims and is akin to treating them as untouchables. At worst, it is a product of the ideology of hate which propelled the current Government into power.
Whichever it be, the Muslim community feels oppressed and alienated in a country which they loved and were proud to be citizens.
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