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The mirage of burial

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday (10) made the most startling statement he made this year.

In response to a question raised by an Opposition parliamentarian, the Premier said that permission would be granted to bury those who died of Covid-19.

This much-awaited, much-demanded answer from the Government comes after a statement made by the Minister tasked with controlling the Covid-19 situation, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, that Covid-19 does not transmit through water, which debunked what the authorities used as a justification to not allow the burial of deceased Covid-19-infected persons.

The greatest objection to the cremation of deceased Covid-19-infected persons came from Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, whose religious beliefs dictate that the dead should be buried. The expression of opposition that started as mere requests morphed into a public outcry, both in Sri Lanka and in foreign countries. Sri Lanka’s progressive civil societies and the public, as well as the Christian community, also came forward to oppose the Government’s stance, which many felt was illogical.

Even though the protests held in front of the Borella Cemetery, where white ribbons were tied on its gates to express opposition, attracted international attention, at that point in time, the Government was too blind to see the seriousness of the issue.

The question many had was why did the Government that adopted Covid-19-related guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) refuse to allow the burial of deceased Covid-19-infected patients, which the WHO has said can be performed safely without the risk of further transmission of the Virus. Also, the Government acted deaf when the public asked as to why burial is not a viable option if it is not proven to be harmful to the environment and at the same time enables the Government to show its friendliness towards the country’s Muslim community.

However, the Government’s stance, i.e. cremating is the only safe way to dispose of the bodies of those who died of Covid-19, is no more, now that the Prime Minister has openly made a statement in support of cremations.

The Prime Minister’s statement may make the common man feel that the countless protests, requests, and debates by various parties, in particular the Muslim community that demanded that the burial of deceased Covid-19-infected persons be permitted, have finally borne fruit. But wait – one of the fortes of Sri Lankan politicians is giving promises and then surprises.

Muslim families in the UK had recently filed a complaint at the United Nations (UN) over their loved ones who died of Covid-19 being cremated in Sri Lanka. Earlier, UN rights experts had called for the cessation of this practice, claiming that it ran the risk of increasing prejudice, intolerance, and violence, and that it amounts to a human rights violation.

The fact that all this happened ahead of the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session, at which Sri Lanka will most likely have to respond to allegations of human rights violations, is not only noteworthy, but also requires genuine attention of the authorities.

The Prime Minister’s abrupt but supportive statement, in fact, came as a surprise to Sri Lankans. Why did the Government that maintained from the beginning that the burial of bodies could contaminate water change its mind? Was it a result of the protests, or was it a genuine acknowledgment of expert opinion? Or, is there a motive that is still too early to understand?

The aforesaid international-level opposition against Sri Lanka’s practice of cremating the deceased Covid-19-infected persons is indicative of the fact that this issue has reached a level where it would be impossible to restore Sri Lanka’s damaged name without taking concrete steps. For now, all we have is the Prime Minister’s word, and several subsequent steps need to be taken for his words to become a reality. Sri Lankans may buy mere promises, but would the international community do the same?