By Mohamed Harees –
The decision to allow for burial of Covid victims by the Sri Lankan authorities, although long overdue is a welcome move. It is indeed a testament to the tireless struggle of families of victims, and human rights watch dogs/ activists, both local and global as well as the pressure from the international community. To be fair, local scientific experts were strongly opposed to the government measure, with the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that there was no evidence to support the claims of pseudo committees, explaining that cremation and burial are equally safe.
The ending of this cruel practice, which has not been scientifically proven to prevent the spread of the virus, will thus allow the Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority a dignified burial in line with Islamic burial rites, a practice allowed in more than 190 countries. Having said that, if the decision-makers, having considered all facts and aspects and have reached a decision based on scientific, medical or logical concerns, Muslim community would have no issues with it and complied with it, The bottom line has however always been clear throughout this burial ban drama. If the Government genuinely wanted to know what the medical and scientific opinion was with regard to disposal of bodies of patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the truth has always been clear as day light! But that was only if it was persuaded by reason and objectivism.
It was thus an open secret that the anti -Muslim frenzy that helped the present Government in to power was kept alive by the continuation of the burial ban that was imposed in March 2020, with Muslims being the ones mostly affected by the decision. Members of the Buddhist clergy supporting the ruling party made sure that the anti-Muslim sentiment that prevailed among a large segment of the majority Sinhala populace after the Easter Sunday attacks, served the Government in detracting the attention of the people from the abysmal failure of the rulers in all walks of national life. Technical committee was a mere front with many foot soldiers doing their bidding. Dr Channa Perera and Prof Meththika Vithanage were ‘recruited’ to lead this racist front to give a paint of medical credibility.
Thus, the anti-burial measures endorsed by the rulers, who enjoys autocratic powers following the constitutional amendment, were defended on two grounds that made Sri Lanka an outlier in the global response to the deadly pandemic. One rationale was that burying COVID victims could result in the virus spreading in the soil and contaminating the country’s water table. The other: Muslims will use the dead bodies in graves as a “biological weapon.” Interestingly therefore, when the burial ban was lifted, it appeared that the myth of ground water contamination and risk of covid burials mysteriously vanished overnight and the so-called technical committee decided to place their stamp of approval for burials, with the visit of Imran Khan and the UNHRC Meeting in Geneva. Thus the burial ban drama which started off in end March 2020 citing pseudo-scientific basis and ending a year later unceremoniously, should be aptly termed, as a ‘Tragicomedy’, with the true face of racism of the establishment being exposed in the process!
Tragicomedy is a tragic play which contains enough comic elements to lighten the overall mood or a serious play with a happy ending. The Merchant of Venice for example can be seen as a tragicomedy. It has a comic structure but one of the central characters, Shylock, looks very much like a tragic character. The play has a comedy ending with the lovers pairing off but we are left with taste in the mouth of the ordeal of Shylock, destroyed by a combination of his own faults and the persecution of the lovers who enjoy that happy ending. The feeling at the end of the play is neither joy nor misery. The play has a decidedly comic structure but there is also a powerful tragic story. Like Sri Lanka’s latest Tragicomedy – the infamous burial drama indeed! The epilogue of this burial drama will certainly reveal the vested political forces behind the episodes- the Viyathmaga intellectuals, who worked behind the scene to formulate the racist narrative to bring this government to power and the racist fronts like the so-called technical committee of pseudo experts who ruthlessly executed with clock wise precision to alienate and target the Muslim community to deprive them of their religious (burial rights).
As Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, said, “Forced cremations, should never have been carried out in the first place, which have particularly denied the Muslim community the right to say goodbye to loved ones in accordance with their religious beliefs’. However, although the reversal of the burial ban looks like a closure, as State Minister Shehan Semasinghe says, it may not be so, as the ban may be reintroduced if the so-called technical committee decides to do so on ‘medical grounds. This also raises renewed fears, when viewed in the backdrop of the greater institutionalised racism project of the government machinery since Independence in general and Post- war period in particular. Famous Cartoonist Avantha Artigala in this social media, reproduces an apt cartoon reflecting this racist theme around burial ban and says ‘Again I say! Burials were banned in Sri Lanka, not on any scientific basis, but due to unabashed, open racism’
Pressure politics, if used wisely, can be a powerful tool. The best example is Sri Lanka; the new rule about all coronavirus victims to be cremated and no burials, with no scientific explanation for it. A few Buddhist monks apparently claimed burying the victims would contaminate the ground and the government agreed. Then a technical committee was appointed which did not have competent virologists which negates the purpose of such a committee. A classic case of appeasement politics but they probably didn’t anticipate the backlash. However, the whole racist project boomeranged in style on the rulers. Rights groups and community leaders were appalled. The world community turned on Colombo. The Lankan Government had backed itself into a corner. Now, the order has been revoked and there are no more forced cremations at least for now. Muslims are free to bury their relatives. The pressure campaign worked but there’s more to this story than activism.
Sri Lanka is facing a stern test at the UN Human Rights Council. There’s a new resolution doing the rounds that slams the country for its dismal reconciliation efforts. Even after a decade of the end of the war against Tigers, the grievances of the Tamils are still awaiting justice. On the contrary, far from punishing the war criminals, the government is rewarding them through government positions, diplomatic postings and pardoning of rogue soldiers. Thus, to avoid being indicted at the UN, Sri Lanka needed help. It needed to gather enough votes to kill the resolution by reversing the burial ban. Colombo has been thus wooing Muslim nations, many of whom have a seat at the Council. So while the global outcry definitely helped, political convenience too played a part. Already, after the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation raised the forced cremation policy at the Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, the chairperson of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, referred to the issue in a statement. She said “The policy of forced cremation of COVID-19 victims has caused pain and distress to the minority Muslim and Christian communities”.
According to analysts, here’s another reason why people can’t call this a change of heart. The Lankan government is considering a controversial law, one that would ban burqas in public. The cabinet has been consulted and with their permission, this proposal could make its way to the Parliament. It’s one step forward and two steps back. Sri Lanka’s justification for the burqa ban is a time-tested one. This has become the norm under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Stigmatisation has been used as a state policy while the government drums up anti-minority sentiments. Right now, with Sri Lanka finding itself in a vulnerable spot, it certainly needs strong diplomatic backing at the UN to keep save the country’s bacon. It’s where misplaced priorities get a nation.
To be fair to the people of Sri Lanka, this burial ban did not enjoy public support. Across Sri Lanka, majority sensible Sinhala and Tamil population were very much empathetic of the pain of mind their sister Muslim community was undergoing due to the depravation of their burial rights arising from clear racism without any scientific basis. In a Sinhala language social media post, activist Eranda Ranganatha, aptly describes the dilemma Sri Lanka is in. ‘Covid burial issue was turned into a problem which did not exist before, and our society which is scientifically blank easily got trapped. Whether cremation or burial was not an issue for the Sinhala Buddhist people. No one asked for cremation only policy. But the government decided so and the Muslims opposed. Then Sinhalese opposed Muslim resistance to the burial issue. With the Easter attacks background, even some Catholic sections too joined in against the Muslim stance. Thus an unnecessary problem was created which did not have a scientific basis. The whole world opposed and Sri Lanka became a laughing stock and held to account. Then due to international pressure, Sri Lankan government backtracked and reversed their burial ban rule after coming a full circle to where it was originally. All communities now feel that an injustice was meted out to them. It was a problem created by vested interests which did not exist before. My appeal to our people is not to get trapped by these types of scheming elements and so called experts who take you astray, when scientific knowledge is within your reach ,and you could verify information easily’.
In an article in Human Rights Pulse, titled Discrimination against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community during the pandemic: a chilling foreshadow’ (21/12/20), Esther Hoole says, ‘The government’s stance is, at best, careless of the rights and requests of the Muslim community. At worst, it is deliberately discriminatory and cruel. Neither of these attitudes is a new phenomenon. From the outset of the current government’s entry into power in a landslide vote by the Sinhalese majority, the Sri Lankan government has—both subtly and overtly—highlighted its disregard for minority communities, of which the Muslim community is one. Within this majoritarian structure, there has also been growing hatred particularly against the Muslim community, continuing the trajectory of the past few years.
‘In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, state bodies have repeatedly cast the Muslim community in a negative light.. On a broader scale, the Muslim community has increasingly become the primary target for vitriol and discrimination. There have been several violent anti-Muslim riots in the past decade.. Where the state should have adopted a nuanced approach towards peace, successive governments have stirred up and capitalised on these anti-Muslim sentiments for political gain. The Muslim minority faces increasing racial injustice and discrimination from sections of the public as well the state. Their fundamental rights to live and die with dignity are being systematically and overtly violated. Where past violations are not addressed and accounted for, conflict will breed conflict. In itself, the Sri Lankan government’s lack of compassion in enforcing unnecessary cremations is horrific and despicable. When studied in the broader framework of events with a view to the future, it is terrifying.’
The rulers’ dismal failed attempt to stage a tragicomedy by imposing an unwanted burial ban was openly exposed as a racist diversion tactic, with no basis in science. The positive trend has been that symbols of the interreligious solidarity has been taking shape against the rulers. The burial issue grew beyond Muslim circles and there is more solidarity and consciousness, and this discontent will add to the public activism gaining momentum, to hold the government to account for many other crises befitting Sri Lanka – rule of law and impunity, economic mismanagement, sale of national assets, widespread deforestation, mounting public debt. People are beginning to see through ‘superior race’ fallacy and Nandasena’s vain attempt to portray himself as a Sinhala Buddhist leader, thus alienating the ‘Other’.
If history is anything to go by, Hitler’s goal was to create a superior society which was then shared by most political leaders, and many of his means, including appeals to nationalism. Hitler’s Eugenics in its open form, in the past promoted by scientists and leading thinkers, is currently out of favour, but its return can be likely in an environment of raw nationalism bordering on racism. Thankfully, open racism generally remains offside in mainstream politics but it is lurking in the fringes. Subtle forms of racism, including institutional racism, are widespread and based on deep-held beliefs or embedded in ‘taken for granted’ reasoning. Hitler’s words and legacy remind us of the massive historical and contemporary importance of racism to public health and medical care. It is imperative that the public health professionals do not become catspaws in the government’s machinations to survive politically, by avoiding subscribing to the rulers’ superior and majoritarian minsdset and demonising the ‘Other’. This whole episode of burial ban drama was a tragicomedy example where a bunch of medical professionals in wolf uniform attempted to weave conspiracy theories and demonise a minority. Thankfully, majority of the medical profession did not concur with them. That was this nation’s fortune.