Tamil Diplomat

Marginalising Sri Lankan Muslims Through Forced Cremations

Statement from US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Urges Citizens to Respect Each Other’s Religions and Beliefs (19th Jan 2021)

Ever since the Covid-19 situation first penetrated the island nation of Sri Lanka during early March of 2019, the country has faced issue after issue in terms of minorities feeling the weight of the situation. The ongoing situation, which has caused an outrage and one that is unfortunately, still continuing, is the pattern of insensitivity that has engulfed Muslim Covid patients who have succumbed to the disease. The result is the adamant approach that is taken by the Sri Lanka Government to choose to cremate Muslims without allowing their families to observe the Islamic ritual of burying their dead. Even worse is the seemingly uncaring attitude that is shown towards Muslim family members who are left without having a say in this.

Although the country’s so called Health Ministry’s technical committee had advised the government to move forward with cremations without considering the need of taking into account religious sensitivity of how other ethnicities would react to this issue, this decision does not seem to make sense especially when the World Health Organisation (WHO) has permitted countries to go ahead with both, burials and cremations. Sri Lanka on the other hand, has chosen to ignore this and move forward with cremations and ignoring the wishes of families of Muslim covid patients who have passed away.

The Sri Lankan Government therefore, has not only gone against the WHO’s guidelines but this has also paved way for a violation of basic human rights. Muslims in Sri Lanka are being denied religious freedom. Due to the insensitive actions of the government, minorities who bury their dead are left strongly affected and angered by this. It is unfortunate to witness the lack of empathy that is currently being projected towards the country’s minorities. Apart from Muslims, Christians too, who also bury their dead, are left affected by this.

A reason for these mandated cremations to take place seemingly, is due to the need to contain the disease and prevent it from spreading further. However, there is no proof that says cremating is any better than burying. Even worse for the Muslim families of those who dies, was the audacity of authorities to demand a fee of around £190 for the cremations. This is a slap in the face of these citizens, who are forced to grieve their dead and simply, not even have the peace of mind to process these deaths, especially when their bodies are cremated without the consent of a relative in these cases.

Reflecting on this issue, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Alaina B. Teplitz relayed about the UDHR Article 18 which was ratified by Sri Lanka in 1955 and stated that any individual has the right to manifest their religion or beliefs in teaching, practice, worship and observance. Even though the Covid situation brought along with it global challenges, the circumstances should not cost people their compassion and respect for each other’s beliefs. She also added that the rights and dignity of all those affected by the pandemic should be respected by giving them and their families the freedom to observe their faith in accordance with international public health guidelines.

At the time of writing this article, Sri Lanka has reported 199 covid deaths. Amongst those who dies, were many Muslim individuals, whose bodies were also left unclaimed by their families who did not want to give their consent for cremations to take place. One recent report that made headlines was the death of a 20-month old baby boy due to the virus. Eventually, the parents did not consent to the baby’s cremation but the hospital where this occurred, anyway went ahead with it. What is even worrying is the mannerism towards this situation and the level of ignorance that was being portrayed by medical staff.

Relatives of the child and his parents questioned the hospital about their move to cremate without gaining the parents’ consent and their answer was that, since the child was a covid-patient, they were allowed to do so The parents hardly got a moment to grieve their child’s death and they had disclosed that they would have felt some level of comfort if they at least were allowed the chance to bury and mourn their child. It is disconcerting to witness the type of flak that minorities in Sri Lanka have to face, for simply being who they are. When people are being taught to understand the importance of maintaining peace and reconciliation, political influences of this kind then seep in and take over.

The government showcases a level of ignorance when it comes to dealing with minorities, especially when realizing that minority citizens were not entirely positive with the current President’s rise to power. In a way, this feels like retaliation against those who did not vote for the president and therefore, this government intentionally brought forward with them Anti-Islamic policies. As of now, politicians from opposition parties, Muslim civil societies, community leaders and even the Muslim Council in Britain have come forward and either urged the Sri Lankan Government to overturn these decisions given by the committees or challenged the government’s policy. Any fruition in this matter is yet to be seen.

There was a recent situation where Muslim parents of a new born were given the news that their child had passed away and the hospital had even gone ahead and cremated the body.

Laxmanan Sanjeev is a legal advisor and human rights activist from Sri Lanka, working with the United Nations Human Rights Council with a Special Consultative status ( ECOSOC). He is an alumni of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.