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Sri Lanka sticks to forced Covid cremation policy, despite revised advice from its own expert panel

29th Jan 2021
Sri Lanka sticks to forced Covid cremation policy, despite revised advice from its own expert panel

Photo: Muslim protestors outside Kanatte Crematorium, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on December 23, 2020, with banners calling for an end of forced cremations. (Credit: Courtesy of Anis Mama)

Forcible cremation of Muslim baby sparks outrage, the public health policy behind it, which is practised exclusively in Sri Lanka and is in conflict with WHO guidelines, is considered a smokescreen for persecuting Muslims.


Elham Asaad Buaras

Sri Lanka’s Health Minister has insisted that the country will continue to cremate all the bodies that have died of Covid-19, despite a revised recommendation by the Government’s own expert medical panel that included burial as means of disposal of bodies.

The mandatory cremation policy announced on April 11, flies in the face of World Health Organization guidelines which stipulate that coronavirus victims can be buried or cremated. Pavithra Wanniarachchi told the Parliament on January 7, that the decision was taken in line with the report prepared by the College of Community Physicists of Sri Lanka (CCPSL). “It says in the report that cremation is the safest method for removing the bodies of Covid-19 victims.”

Asked why the Government did not consider the burial of the victims as also proposed by the CCPSL, Wanniarachchi told the lawmakers that the Government did not intend to deviate from the report on any ethnic or religious basis.

Wanniarachchi argued that compulsory cremation of bodies is for health reasons only. However, Former MP and state minister Ali Zahir Moulana called on Wanniarachchito to “show the report or table such report in Parliament for public review.”

In a u-turn, Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) said in its report released on January 2 that both cremation and burials are acceptable as means of disposing of Covid-19 victims’ bodies, provided that health measures are followed. In March, the Ministry of Health declared that burying coronavirus victims could spread the virus so that all bodies, irrespective of religion, will be cremated. NGOs and minority groups in Sri Lanka filed petitions before the Supreme Court pleading to stop forced cremation. But the apex court dismissed all such petitions.

The u-turn by the SLMA was welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain which had on December 30, announced it is to sue the Sri Lankan Government’s forced cremation policy.“We welcome the expert panel’s revised guidance which allows for burials and is in line with the World Health Organization recommendation. This is a positive step, and we urge the Sri Lankan Government to reverse the policy of compulsory cremation,” said MCB Secretary-General, Harun Khan.


The case of baby Shaykh

Colombo’s policy of burning all deceased Covid-19 victims disproportionately impacted the Muslim community. Last month, 20-day-old Shaykh became the youngest of 80 Muslims to be cremated, against their families’ wishes.

Maulana who spoke to Mohamed Fahim, the distraught father of Shaykh posted his account on Twitter. Fahim said that upon arriving at the hospital on December 7, the baby was subjected to antigen testing which indicated positive, while both parents’ results were negative. Bewildered by the fact that his baby’s results were positive and the fact that antigen testing usually results in “false positives,” Fahim asked the doctor to conduct a PCR test on the baby.

Maulana said, “Unable to secure any private means of conducting the PCR test, Fahim was in touch with the hospital by phone who informed him that Shaykh had been moved to the MICU around 3 am. When contacting the hospital again at 5:30 am, he was informed that his baby had passed away.

“A doctor told him that he’d need to sign some documents. Fahim said he would only sign if he can bury his baby and if a PCR test would be done. The official refused to release the baby’s body for burial and demanded that Fahim should sign the documents. When Fahim refused, the official demanded that either he should sign or leave.

“Overcome by grief. He sent his brother-in-law, Rifkhan, instead to try speaking with the authorities. The authorities remained defiant with Rifkhan, and Rifkhan left saying he can’t sign. He also noted that there were several media personnel loitering around the hospital.

“Around 3:30 pm, Fahim received another call from the hospital saying that they are moving Shaykh’s body for the cremation… Fahim with a few friends went to the crematorium, but he was unable to go inside, as he did not want to see his baby being burnt. Even there, he saw the media recording the entire episode and felt heartbroken of how they were making the burning of his baby son a spectacle.

His friends tried to speak with the authorities one last time, but they refused to budge and proceeded to cremate the infant. Fahim, grief-struck returned home to his distraught wife and 6-year-old daughter.”

When the Muslim and Christian groups petitioned the country’s Supreme Court, citing the right to bury according to rituals as a fundamental right, the court, on December 1, dismissed their concerns. Muslim families are refusing to pay the $300 fee demanded by the state to cover the costs of cremations in protest against the policy.

Mohammed Ashraff still does not know if his uncle Mohammad Jeffrey, 76, was cremated. “As per our religion, Islam, cremating bodies is prohibited. Therefore, we can’t accept what they are doing. So we did not give our consent,” Ashraff said. “I told them to keep the body and do whatever they want.”


Protests and condemnation

The UK’s Foreign Office Minister, Nigel Adams, said the UK is concerned about Sri Lanka’s decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by Covid-19, and recognises the particular impact this is having on Sri Lankan Muslims and other faith communities.

He told Parliament on January 15, Adams said Minister for South Asia and Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad had in December “raised concerns about this directly with the Sri Lankan High Commissioner.” He also “raised the importance of minority rights in a call with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in November. The UK’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka has also raised concerns about mandatory cremations several times with the Sri Lankan Government, most recently on January 8.”

Several protests were reported across north-eastern Sri Lanka last month against the forced cremations, with many tying white ribbons to the gates of the crematorium as a sign of their anger.
Many others protested online, claiming that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was using the pandemic to marginalise Muslims.

Sri Lankan Muslims are also angered by the proposal that Muslims be buried in neighbouring Maldives, whose president received a request from Sri Lanka to look into the possibility of allowing such burials.

Moulana said, “It is nice of the Maldivian Government to accept it, but it’s a slap on our people. We were all born here, we have been living here, and we want to die here.”

Azath Salley, leader of the National Unity Alliance and former governor of the Western Province said, “It is a communal decision they took. The Government wants to hurt the feelings of minorities. They are violating WHO guidelines and basic human rights.They did not even spare a child who was only 20-days-old. To add to the family’s sorrow, they were even asked by the Government to pay to cover the costs of cremation,” he said.

Salley urged the international community to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to “respect the beliefs of the minorities and to allow them to bury their dead.”

Rehab Mahamoor, a research assistant at Amnesty International, said Sri Lankan Government has demonstrated a “callous disregard for religious rites,” and “has used Covid-19 as an excuse to ensure Muslims in Sri Lanka cannot even die in peace.”

2 Responses to “Sri Lanka sticks to forced Covid cremation policy, despite revised advice from its own expert panel”

HA KHIM JEEJanuary 31, 2021

What kind of KARMA the Sri Lanka Government is acquiring? The results of what they are doing by forcing the faith based community to cremate their dead? A 20 day old child? Even when there is clear proof that Covid patients who died can be buried and there is no proof anywhere that it is harmful or that it releases the virus. I dare the Sri Lankan Government to do this to the Jewish community. Please STOP this nonsense that spoils you name internationally.


Khadija MansourFebruary 7, 2021

The government of Sri Lanka is embarrassing itself trying to package its forced cremation of Covid-19 victims as anything but persecution of its Muslim population. If there was as iota of scientific evidence to back their policy they would have published it by now, after all wouldn’t they want to share this infection reduction science with the rest of the world, especially with the World Health Organization whose guild-lines they have ignored? Sri Lanka isn’t just burning bodies, its burning its global reputation.


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