By Mohamed Harees –
Sri Lanka is already hit particularly hard due to a perfect storm of crises: Covid pandemic realities, general economic mismanagement, sale of national assets, shrinking of democratic space, militarization of the establishment, rule of law, social injustice as well as a social volcano about to explode. People are fighting a running battle to keep the wolf from the door. Many businesses, across both the formal and informal economies, are in danger of either closing down or cutting their workforces. To add to this, the ‘burial vs. cremation of Covid bodies’ debate has been creating more heat more light, in the light of Muslims asking for justice and their just basic right to bury their dead as per the dictates of their faith. Everyone knows too well that there is no scientific basis for the refusal and that the agenda behind these cremations is to further ostracize the Muslim community and intensify Islamophobic sentiment.
However, some observers argue that by giving disaffected Sri Lankan people a target to blame for their difficulties, Muslims have become a useful wedge issue in theGovernment’s campaign to divert public attention away from their inefficiency. And this appears to place the vulnerable Muslim community at the receiving end of the worst wave of Islamophobia in Post-war Sri Lanka. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa under compulsions of his ultra nationalist electorate has been seen to employ what critics call a fear-based strategy, raising the spectre of national security in support of policies that he promised to implement as President. In this context, it is not surprising that the health crisis has been used to reinforce the narrative that the ‘careless and undisciplined’ Muslim community must be brought in line. By not allowing to ‘do their own thing’, that thinking has been gaining force in society for a long time and simply intensified with this pandemic.
Muslims cannot be blamed for feeling demonised and targeted. Contributory factors are in every corner. Among some alarming developments, there was the case of the President of the PHI Association blaming the Muslims for not being able to celebrate Sinhala New Year, in a Derana interview. Then again, there was also the Government Medical Officer’s Association (GMOA) and the Information and Communication Technology Agency Sri Lanka (ICTA), in a concept proposal for a COVID-19 exit strategy presented to the President, assigning the Muslim population the highest weightage of risk when determining the risk of the spread of the virus in each district. Following heavy criticism for racially profiling Muslims, ICTA has since disassociated itself with the report, and the GMOA has republished the report omitting the inclusion of the Muslim population as a variable affecting spread of the virus. On top of that, the feeling about patron saints for hate groups, sitting in the highest levels of government was further cemented through the revelations of Madille Paghaaloka Thero who stated that it was Gotabaya who gave them guidance and taught them tricks when establishing their Sinha-Le’- the racist outfit. (BBS was State sponsored too). Thus, State sanctioned racism is being freely and openly promoted with the support of some rogue sections of the media like Hiru and Derana to mainstream anti-Muslim hate.
In this backdrop, it needs no rocket science to decipher that this extremely discriminatory policy that is in place in Sri Lanka, insisting on cremation of all those who die of COVID-19 is an extension of this same line of racist thinking. As Amnesty International (AI) says, ‘For most people, the effects of COVID-19 are already painful enough – the fear of contracting the virus, the fear of spreading it to others, the fear of seeing loved ones suffer, the fear of someone close dying. But for Sri Lanka’s Muslims there is yet another fear: the fear of not being able to bury your loved ones and being denied dignity in that final moment’. As AI ended their statement, ‘The Sri Lankan government must not forget that it has a duty to ensure all people in Sri Lanka are treated equitably. COVID-19 does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic, political or religious differences, and nor should the Government of Sri Lanka’.
Since of late, there has been a well-orchestrated campaign to provoke further Muslim sentiment. Irresponsible statements made by responsible officers like Dr Channa Perera such as ‘Muslims would “weaponize” the virus if an infected person’s remains were released to them’ are not sheer propaganda, but were made to further intensify tensions between the communities and solidify the ‘bogeymen’ mind-set within the majority community about Muslims, after planting the seeds in the Post-Easter period. Furthermore, Muslim emotions are being tested to the hilt and on its overdrive, driven by both the external and internal camps. Externally, the racist camp has been promoting the narrative that Muslims are irresponsible and unpatriotic and are asking for special favours. They have already painted such a picture in the minds of the average Sinhala psyche. The Government also tried to export the Covid bodies to Maldives, which observers called as ‘religious apartheid’. Even the Supreme Court closed the legal door for the Muslims to seek further redress. Some influential SLPP monks have been putting much pressure on the government too not to cave into ‘Muslim demands’. Most Muslim areas are being targeted for PCR tests. Muslim mindset is thus on a victimhood mode and may be easily exploited.
The truth is choosing the burial over the cremation option’ is not an issue to hit at the patriotism of the Muslim community. It is an issue which has been unreasonably created by the authorities in Sri Lanka with no acceptable scientific or medical basis either within Sri Lanka or in a global sense. The Muslims of Sri Lanka feel that they are being unnecessarily driven thus towards an awkward position in recent times, arising from the unreasonable standpoint of the establishment with regard to the cremation issue. Then comes the official silence on the on-going anti-Muslim demonization campaign seen on a daily basis in the racist sections of the Sri Lankan Media like Derana/Hiru TV and Divaina Newspaper. The nation saw how Dr Shafi’s case was unfairly highlighted by Divaina, after the Easter Sunday attacks, which was instigated by the likes of Ratana Thero et el to demonise the entire community. It is a mystery why the so-called ICCPR and the penal code laws cannot be applied to these openly racist Media outlets.
In this overall context, internally, within the Muslim community, pressure is building up in desperation in the absence of political inaction and justice. Much heat also in being created within. Emotions are high which are being aroused specially among youthful sections of the community about the need to act quickly to defend the community rights which are being violated in broad daylight by a ‘racist government’. There is the inherent danger of these high emotions at times being even exploited as well which may lead to disastrous consequences. Many politicians, intellectuals and leading monks have already alerted about the danger of the possibility of pushing Muslim youth towards extremist and radicalised stances, who feel community leaders are taking a ‘too soft’ approach. As it transpired during the Easter Sunday probe, impunity and failure to punish offenders responsible for anti-Muslim violence in Aluthgama and Digana were cited as reasons which radicalised the terrorists who waged the despicable Easter attacks. Minister Ali Sabry too warned about this possibility too. Even Kotte Hamudurowoo and Ven Gnanassara (despite their previous hard stances) spoke in favour of allowing burials to avert a national disaster. This type of emotion building does not augur well for the well-being of the nation.
It is said that both ‘push’ (These include: marginalization and discrimination; poor governance, impunity for racist crimes, violations of human rights and the Rule of Law; prolonged and unresolved conflicts; and radicalization in prisons), and ‘pull’ (which includes distortion and misuse of beliefs, political ideologies and ethnic and cultural differences;) factors, act as drivers towards violent extremism, as was illustrated by the ‘troubles’ in Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Violent extremism also tends to thrive in an environment characterized by injustice, poor governance, democracy deficits, corruption and a culture of impunity for unlawful behaviour engaged in by the State or its agents. It is fortunate that the heads of the Amarapura and Raamagna Sangha Sabhawa have spotted these dangers and suggested to the Government to bring an early solution to the cremation issue, choosing to alert about an impending explosion of a social volcano.
It also behoves on the Muslim community leaders too, to ensure that emotions in regard to the cremation issue does not go out of control, is duly managed and community frustrations channelled properly along democratic ways of protest and advocacy. Religious leaders and ACJU will have a pivotal role in this regard, History has shown that violence has not solved any problem. Thus, any diversions will have a disastrous medium to long term effect on community relations, however much the challenges this contentious issue may pose. There are also possibilities of disgruntled political forces out there to exploit Muslim frustrations for political gain too. The way forward is to think clearly, exercise restraint, join hands with progressive elements of all communities and strive not only against this injustice, but against economic plunder, corruption, sale of national assets, all types of social injustices and breakdown of law and order to mention a few which are continuing to happen unabated, despite election promises to tackle them. This does not mean that Muslims should feel defeatist; rather it is important to think as equal citizens and continue to ask for their due rights. They should not allow themselves to be used as political footballs. Subjugation starts with an inferior mind-set, and then exploited by majoritarian forces to their advantage.
The failure to resolve these issues have external ramifications too. The international community, UN and well known HR Watch dogs have spoken against the forced cremation. All reputed virologists in and out of the country have spoken and debunked the myth that burial is risky. However, Sri Lanka is clearly on the verge of being ostracised due to the government’s indifference to international opinion and gross disregard to human rights. There is the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head at the next Human Rights Council meeting in March 2021. The responsibility therefore falls upon the people across all racial and religious divides to salvage their motherland’s dignity in the eyes of the global community, by holding the government to account and ask it to act justly to all sections of the society.
Sri Lanka has been a country that has produced great political, religious and intellectual leaders who stood for diversity, pluralism and human rights of all its peoples. Majority Sinhala people have always stood for tolerance and fair play and have not promoted hate. However, the problem is the silence of the majority. It is time again for those principled citizens to do their part irrespective of their ethnic or political affiliations to prevent Sri Lanka plunging further into the abyss of prejudice and intolerance. The role of the majority community is so crucial to achieve this noble transition in the society.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a justice crisis. The same structural injustices and inequalities that impacted the lives of vulnerable people before the crisis now determine who suffers the most from it. There is a need to take on the myriad justice issues the pandemic has created or exacerbated among our people. The political leaders should not be allowed to exploit sensitive societal issues to score points. As Martin Luther King Jnr ,continued, ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It was Mahatma Ghandi who said, “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Our country cannot afford another Post -1983 type period of division and instability. As Sri Lanka stands in its own shadow, President Gotabaya’s government should reflect on the harm that racism has been causing the island and its many peoples. If the nation is to learn from history, and forge ahead, not only the government must combat impunity but it also must respect the legitimate concerns of the people, irrespective of racial or religious differences. Failure to do so fails humanity as a whole.