Dr. Farah Mihlar

For nine months Muslims in Sri Lanka have been begging the government to allow them to bury relatives who have died of COVID-19. Their plea has been supported by some non-Muslim civil society and religious leaders and international organisations on the grounds that the government’s policy violates human rights and causes tremendous suffering to the families whose relatives were cremated against their wishes. A majority within the government, including the Health Minister, have held firmly to the position that cremating COVID-19 dead is essential to prevent the infection spreading. Underlying this debate is a very simple fact – there is no evidence to prove that burying COVID-19 dead presents a danger to public health.

In an attempt to settle the uproar Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in December called for an expert study. The 11-member committee of eminent microbiologists and virologists was unambiguous; “burial can be used as a safe disposal of corpses of COVID-19 infected,” going further to stipulate safe methods of disposal. In the past few weeks, the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) have issued separate statements arguing for the permitting of burials of COVID-19 bodies. Both organisations explained that there is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread through dead bodies and additionally argued that there is a greater danger of the virus spreading through waste water and sewage of COVID-19 patients than through burials.

From April to December, the government of Sri Lanka turned a blind eye to wide-ranging calls to shift their policy on the basis of internationally available scientific advice. Now they are refusing to act on the explicit and authoritative, evidence-based position provided by their own experts.

If there was any previous doubt, it must now be blindingly obvious; forcible cremation is not about public health. It never was. This is nothing but racial discrimination. In deference to the larger context and sensitivities of a global pandemic many have treaded carefully in responding to this issue, urging the government to consider allowing burial rather than calling them out for their racism. In light of the scientific evidence, this deference now resembles complicity.

This policy is not about the threat of spreading of COVID-19 through groundwater. If this was true the government should address the sewage and waste water from quarantine centers. It is not about one law for all, if a law denies one group of people their rights it is discriminatory.

This is not about Muslims wanting special treatment. Like all other religious groups, Muslims were willing to limit their religious practice during Ramadhan and on a regular basis when evidence was presented to justify the need.

What then is this policy, if it is not racist?

Let us examine the legal basis. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which Sri Lanka is a party to, defines racial discrimination as “Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect to nullify or to impair the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Based on this definition, the rights of Muslims as an ethnic group to practice their religion are currently being restricted by the state. To prove discrimination the Committee explains that “States must consider not only the purpose of different acts…but also the effect of discrimination such acts, even formally neutral, may have on the exercise or the enjoyment of human rights” of some individuals.

Forced cremation appears to affect all groups equally and therefore be neutral but in effect prevents specific groups form exercising their rights. ICERD has explained “not every difference in treatment amounts to discrimination”. The difference can be legitimate if the criteria for it is “reasonable and objective”, which due to the lack of evidence is not the case here.

Additionally, this policy is a violation of a number of human rights. Article 18, on freedom of religion and belief; Article 26 on the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, etc, and Article 27 on the protection of rights of minorities in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Sri Lanka is also a party to. Some of these can be restricted in situations of public emergency but such limitations need to be necessary, which is not so here.

This latest government action must be understood in the context of racism and discrimination faced by minorities in Sri Lanka. Since the war ended in 2009, violent Buddhist extremists have directed hatred at Muslims in social and mainstream media campaigns and through violent attacks on places of religious worship, businesses and neighbourhoods. Ludicrous claims of Muslim food suppliers poisoning Sinhalese and clothing establishments planting fertility impeding substances in the underwear of Sinhala women are not the delirious comments of a few extremists, but are systematically presented in the media and in public campaigns. These are not disparate anecdotes; they are well established hate campaigns based on the belief that Muslims want to take over the country through population increase and religious extremism. Muslims are seen as a serious threat who must be oppressed if they cannot be destroyed. These views gained validity and new life after the Easter Sunday attacks when the entire Muslim community was targeted for the crimes of a few. The fact that many Muslim religious and community leaders had previously reported these bombers to the police counted for nothing as Muslims were collectively punished in the violent attacks that took place in April 2019 and face continuing daily discrimination. The Sri Lankan Army and Police failed to protect Muslim neighbourhoods during these attacks.

As the pandemic hit and Muslim neighbourhoods, businesses and mosques could not be burnt and mobbed, sections within the government together with its extremists allies targeted the community through forcible cremation. The terror and grief this policy has set on Muslims, for whom burial is non-negotiable and cremation is considered sinful, pacifies the extremist agenda. The power of these extremists forces over the government is such that a report ordered by its own scientific experts has been binned and numerous calls including from religious leaders and those within the majority community are being ignored.

Muslims are being portrayed as hysterical, selfishly wanting their own way at a time of national crisis, and as always demanding special treatment. Despite being only nine percent of the population more than half the cremated COVID-19 dead are from the Muslim community. The pain and grief of losing a loved one is in any instance is hard to bear, and due to quarantining procedures especially heart wrenching for families of COVID-19 dead. The agony of families who have to face the possibility of cremation in addition to this is tormenting. Imagine the additional suffering for the parents and family when even their 20 day-old baby was not spared. Inflicting such suffering on an ethnic/religious group simply because of their identity is beyond deplorable.

Our soft peddling around the sensitivities of racists hiding behind a public health crisis must stop now. We need to openly and loudly call this out for what it is. It is racism, discrimination and a violation of human rights. If the government wants to continue to ignore its own scientific advisors and pursue  a policy of forcible cremation, let us be open and name and shame them as a racist, discriminatory government pursuing an agenda which, rather than protecting the country, tears it apart.