‘Exporting’ The ‘Covid Burial’ Issue To Maldives: Is It A Hobson’s Choice Or Another Red Herring?

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

“Tolerance of intolerance enables oppression.” ― DaShanne Stokes

The Muslim community is losing hope in their battle for justice to bury their ‘Covid’ dead. This is a traumatic situation for the entire community. Yes! trauma aside, this is going to have serious implications for generations to come. With legal avenues being effectively blocked by the highest court of the land, and their calls for good sense or soundness of judgment being virtually muted in the face of a history of ‘State sanctioned’ racism particularly in Post war Sri Lanka, the beleaguered community appears to be facing another dilemma – to be or not to be buried in a foreign land! Is the Government offering a Hobson’s choice to the Muslims or is this another red herring to side-track their palpably vicious agenda to alienate them?

The government of Maldives has generously come to bury their COVID-19 victims in the island on special request from Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to assist Sri Lanka in facilitating Islamic funeral rites in the Maldives, for Sri Lankan Muslims succumbing to COVID19 pandemic. Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid  said in a Tweet, that the decision is based on the close long-standing bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and Maldives, and to ensure help to face the challenges of the pandemic. Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr Hemantha Herath was quoted as saying that Foreign Ministry has asked health authorities to develop guidelines and look into the practically of the offer

To the Government of Maldives! Muslims indeed are much grateful and thankful for the brotherly thought and concern and the gracious offer to bury their Covid bodies. It is much appreciated. However, whether the gesture made with such laudable intentions  will ‘assist the Muslim community in Sri Lanka’((as stated), in the long run and to get justice for their cause to be treated as dignified citizens in the land of their motherland, in another matter altogether! It can well and truly even be a ‘Trojan horse’ to test the resolve of the community to protect their constitutional rights and their identity!

On the face of it, this decision appears to solve the problem in the short term to “offer solace to our Sri Lankan Muslim brothers & sisters grieving over burial of loved ones” as Maldivian Foreign Minister’s tweet read. In the short term, as officials pointed out some issues need to be worked out pertaining to the safely transportation of COVID-positive dead bodies . Currently, airlines are not accepting such remains, and sending the bodies via ship would also present practical difficulties and delays in burials. However, even if they are sorted out, what is totally ignored in the process is how the Government of Sri Lanka is attempting to side-track the main question: Why is it not possible to allow the grieving families to bury their loved ones affected by Covid following WHO Guidelines adopted by over 182 countries? Why is it not possible to clearly lay down the scientific evidence before the nation , which is not available for the rest of the world?  If definite answers cannot be provided quoting proven scientific evidence, then it will be foolhardy for the rulers to attempt to cover  their ‘emperor’s clothes’-  stubborn ‘’State sanctioned racist policies’ designed to please an electorate which voted them to power on a majoritarian mandate!

It is not rocket science to understand that it is the right of every citizen of Sri Lanka, to be buried in their own motherland, if their death occurs within its borders, whether due to Covid or not. Even when someone dies overseas, the stress of bereavement can be made worse by having to deal with an unfamiliar system far from home and all efforts will be taken to bring the body home. Thus, it is just hilarious to even think of their bodies being sent to a far-away land for burial, where the affected families practically cannot even be there to send their loved ones off in a dignified manner. Apart from cost of travel, the place of burial will be an alien or a strange land to the affected families. How then can a grieving family bear the stress of their sad loss when the body of their loved one who passes away in their own country is packed off to another country however welcoming that country may be? It is indeed adding insult to injury to a beleaguered community which has been already undergoing immense stress due to the said government’s arbitrary and inhumane ‘forced cremation ‘policy and also in the backdrop of increasing Islamophobia ever since the Easter Sunday tragic attacks in April last year.

Although Maldives offer is appreciated, allowing covid bodies to be buried outside Sri Lanka however will portend a definite danger for the future identity and status of a community, long being demonised in the country as aliens and outsiders by hate groups led by rogue monks and sections of the media whose patron saints are in the government. Muslims being the direct victims of a demonization and discrimination policy of the government in this instance, it will only give the impression that the community implicitly accepts that they are second class citizens whose religious and cultural rights enshrined on paper in the constitution are merely up for manipulation or tampering. In short, they accept that they have no right to ask for burial rights. This will also confirm the racist narrative that Muslims do not belong to this country. The Muslim community and its leaders need therefore to be mindful in how they act in this challenging situation. They should take a principled stand in relation to the ‘burial abroad’ issue and oppose this strange move to send their dead to foreign location for burial, however laudable the intentions of the offering Muslim brotherly nation may be!

The coronavirus crisis is stressful for people worried about their health, job security, families and communities. It becomes even more emotionally taxing when a loved one dies and family or friends when they have also been forced to cremate their dead, in direct violation of their religious rights and traditions without no plausible reason. The very thought of dying from Corona has been driving fear and anxiety into their hearts. Apart from the Muslims, this warped policy has also adversely impacted the Christian community as well. In the context of no scientific basis to deny the burial option to dispose Covid bodies, the callous disregard for religious rites shown by the State has, understandably, caused tremendous distress amongst these communities.

Sri Lanka continue to maintain that ground water may be contaminated by carrying out burials, a practice commonly apply by almost all countries hit by COVID 19 pandemic. Government should at least now accept that there is no scientific basis for adopting a ‘forced cremation policy’. At the risk of repetition, it is pertinent to stress that many scientific pundits both in Sri Lanka and outside, have been quite vocal against this gross violation of human rights in the guise of fighting the Covid pandemic. Apart from WHO which tweeted that ‘It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true’, to quote two world experts, world noted expert and one of the world’s top Virologist Professor, Hugh Pennington of UK , and Prof Malik Peiris of University of Hong Kong both said that Burial of Covid bodies is perfectly safe. In separate interviews, Paba Palihawadana, former Chief Epidemiologist, Director, Central Epidemiological Unit, Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka and Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, former government chief virologist and epidemiologist have also debunked the myth that burial of Covid bodies will adversely affect either the water tables or public health, based on available scientific evidence- a common myth propagated without evidence by an incompetent technical committee, condemned as such as none other than another leading expert. Prof Tissa Vitharana. To be quite honest,. one of the top wig of this committee Dr Channa Perera, Consultant Forensic Pathologist “attached to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health” in fact let the cat out of the bag!. He told the BBC World Service: “the government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used a biological weapon.” Yes! Isn’t this not inklings of an anti-Muslim agenda!

The image of a sleeping baby Shaykh, today stands as a symbol for what Sri Lanka’s Muslim community as well as moderates consider cruel and inhuman treatment of the Muslim coronavirus victims. In barely two days, baby Shaykh was in the news as Sri Lanka’s youngest victim of the virus, cremated against his family’s wishes because of the government’s warped policy of allowing only cremation, based on unsubstantiated claims that bodies of COVID-19 victims could contaminate groundwater.

Many public protest campaigns have begun. The Muslim community is being forced to abandon their own dead in order to protect their beliefs and traditions. Affected families have started to refuse accepting their departed loves ones’ bodies or their ashes. Over the weekend, members of the public tied thousands of white ribbons to the gates of the cemetery housing the crematorium. Later the protestors used the hashtag #WhiteClothProtest to popularised the campaign asking to tie a white piece of cloth where ever they can to show solidarity with the demand for safe burials. The protest picked up and hundreds of white handkerchiefs were tied to the fence of the Kanatte Cemetery in Borella. However, they have been removed the next day, which is a clear attempt to stifle peaceful civil disobedience by well-intentioned members of the public, & even a clear indication of suppression. As former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera said on Twitter.‘The ghouls of Kanatte (cemetery) have removed overnight the white handkerchiefs tied in memory of the infant who was cremated forcibly against the wishes of the parents”.

To the scientific world, death may be purely biological and anatomical—the ceasing of brain functions, stopping of the heart etc. The politicians, will not miss any opportunity to play politics with anything, even death of a person or the dead body, provided it will bring them political gains. But, to the organised, scripture-based religions and the oral faith systems, death is a phenomenon with philosophical, theological and spiritual dimensions. Repercussions of the current decision on mandatory cremation overweigh its intended objectives. The call for a reversal of the ‘cremation only’ policy is already triggering a fresh wave of Islamophobia within the majority community, as the actual position has been made known to them. In this backdrop, this so-called measure to ‘bring solace to the Muslim community’ by taking their bodies to Maldives for burial can only be understood as a red herring to divert the attention of the people and the international community away from the underlying racist overtones, manifested through the decision of a politically motivated the so-called ‘technical committee’ to forcibly cremate the Covid dead bodies, against all available expert opinion and the practice followed by the rest of the world.

What is the way forward for the affected community? It is certainly not allowing their dead to be taken to a foreign location. It is to be united in their resolve and join hands with many progressive forces in other communities to expose the pseudo-scientific justifications provided to hide the ‘State sanctioned racism’ and to demand from their government to protect their religious and cultural rights assured in the Constitution and international human rights laws. The extremely despicable attack by some wolves in Muslim clothing on Easter Sunday last year, cannot and should not pollute their rich and proud history of over 1000 years. Muslims are part of the proud Sri Lankan heritage and should act as such without being allowed to be used as ‘Karapincha’ (curry leaves). The international community and UN should ensure that Sri Lanka, fall in line with its obligations to protect the rights of their minorities, without allowing the government to act as a government for the majority.

Those who make decisions at the highest levels, should therefore also assess the wider social consequences. These can also be mistakes that the Sri Lankans would regret in the years to come. As for the government, it is still not too late to reverse the course without resorting to red herring tactics. It is the duty of the people particularly the majority community, to hold the government to account to remedy the injustice to sections of our people, for “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as Martin Luther King , Jr echoed. Well! this should remind us of the poem of Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, which goes thus:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist. 

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

!   .

Sri Lanka continue to maintain that ground water may be contaminated by carrying out burials, a practice commonly apply by almost all countries hit by COVID 19 pandemic. Government should at least now accept that there is no scientific basis for adopting a ‘forced cremation policy’. At the risk of repetition, it is pertinent to stress that many scientific pundits both in Sri Lanka and outside, have been quite vocal against this gross violation of human rights in the guise of fighting the Covid pandemic. Apart from WHO which tweeted that ‘It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true’, to quote two world experts, world noted expert and one of the world’s top Virologist Professor, Hugh Pennington of UK , and Prof Malik Peiris of University of Hong Kong both said that Burial of Covid bodies is perfectly safe. In separate interviews, Paba Palihawadana, former Chief Epidemiologist, Director, Central Epidemiological Unit, Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka and Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, former government chief virologist and epidemiologist have also debunked the myth that burial of Covid bodies will adversely affect either the water tables or public health, based on available scientific evidence- a common myth propagated without evidence by an incompetent technical committee, condemned as such as none other than another leading expert. Prof Tissa Vitharana. To be quite honest,. one of the top wig of this committee Dr Channa Perera, Consultant Forensic Pathologist “attached to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health” in fact let the cat out of the bag!. He told the BBC World Service: “the government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used a biological weapon.” Yes! Isn’t this not inklings of an anti-Muslim agenda!

The image of a sleeping baby Shaykh, today stands as a symbol for what Sri Lanka’s Muslim community as well as moderates consider cruel and inhuman treatment of the Muslim coronavirus victims. In barely two days, baby Shaykh was in the news as Sri Lanka’s youngest victim of the virus, cremated against his family’s wishes because of the government’s warped policy of allowing only cremation, based on unsubstantiated claims that bodies of COVID-19 victims could contaminate groundwater.

Many public protest campaigns have begun. The Muslim community is being forced to abandon their own dead in order to protect their beliefs and traditions. Affected families have started to refuse accepting their departed loves ones’ bodies or their ashes. Over the weekend, members of the public tied thousands of white ribbons to the gates of the cemetery housing the crematorium. Later the protestors used the hashtag #WhiteClothProtest to popularised the campaign asking to tie a white piece of cloth where ever they can to show solidarity with the demand for safe burials. The protest picked up and hundreds of white handkerchiefs were tied to the fence of the Kanatte Cemetery in Borella. However, they have been removed the next day, which is a clear attempt to stifle peaceful civil disobedience by well-intentioned members of the public, & even a clear indication of suppression. As former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera said on Twitter.‘The ghouls of Kanatte (cemetery) have removed overnight the white handkerchiefs tied in memory of the infant who was cremated forcibly against the wishes of the parents”.

To the scientific world, death may be purely biological and anatomical—the ceasing of brain functions, stopping of the heart etc. The politicians, will not miss any opportunity to play politics with anything, even death of a person or the dead body, provided it will bring them political gains. But, to the organised, scripture-based religions and the oral faith systems, death is a phenomenon with philosophical, theological and spiritual dimensions. Repercussions of the current decision on mandatory cremation overweigh its intended objectives. The call for a reversal of the ‘cremation only’ policy is already triggering a fresh wave of Islamophobia within the majority community, as the actual position has been made known to them. In this backdrop, this so-called measure to ‘bring solace to the Muslim community’ by taking their bodies to Maldives for burial can only be understood as a red herring to divert the attention of the people and the international community away from the underlying racist overtones, manifested through the decision of a politically motivated the so-called ‘technical committee’ to forcibly cremate the Covid dead bodies, against all available expert opinion and the practice followed by the rest of the world.

What is the way forward for the affected community? It is certainly not allowing their dead to be taken to a foreign location. It is to be united in their resolve and join hands with many progressive forces in other communities to expose the pseudo-scientific justifications provided to hide the ‘State sanctioned racism’ and to demand from their government to protect their religious and cultural rights assured in the Constitution and international human rights laws. The extremely despicable attack by some wolves in Muslim clothing on Easter Sunday last year, cannot and should not pollute their rich and proud history of over 1000 years. Muslims are part of the proud Sri Lankan heritage and should act as such without being allowed to be used as ‘Karapincha’ (curry leaves). The international community and UN should ensure that Sri Lanka, fall in line with its obligations to protect the rights of their minorities, without allowing the government to act as a government for the majority.

Those who make decisions at the highest levels, should therefore also assess the wider social consequences. These can also be mistakes that the Sri Lankans would regret in the years to come. As for the government, it is still not too late to reverse the course without resorting to red herring tactics. It is the duty of the people particularly the majority community, to hold the government to account to remedy the injustice to sections of our people, for “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” as Martin Luther King , Jr echoed. Well! this should remind us of the poem of Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, which goes thus:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

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