Sri Lanka promise to end forced cremations of Covid-19 victims draw calls for action

ECONOMYNEXT – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement of lifting the ban on burials for Muslim Covid-19 victims was immediately welcomed by his Pakistan counterpart Imran Khan, but others were more cautious and called for implementation.

Rajapaksa told opposition legislator S. M. Marrikkar that “burials will be allowed” when he asked why the government should continue with its 10-month-long policy of forced cremations when the government itself admitted that the virus is not transmitted through ground water.

The government has resisted calls to reverse an April 2020 gazette which banned burials, including for Muslims. Islamic funeral rites require burials and expressly prohibit cremations. The government explanation was that burials could lead to ground water getting contaminated with the virus.

“We welcome Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance given in Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID19,” Khan said on twitter shortly after the Prime Minister’s off-the-cuff response to Marrikkar.

With similar promises broken before, Muslim leaders as well as Colombo-based diplomats were more cautious in welcoming Rajapaksa’s remarks which appear to ease mounting tension within the minority Muslim community.

British High Commissioner in Colombo, Sarah Hulton called for action to implement the premier’s announcement.

“Welcome Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s announcement in Parliament today on the burial of Covid 19 victims. Hope this is soon policy…,” she said on Twitter.

Her US counterpart Alaina Teplitz, too cautiously greeted Rajapaksa’s comment.

“Welcome media reporting on PM’s announcement to end mandatory cremation of COVID victims,” ambassador Teplitz said. “Implementation of a revised practice that is in line with international public health norms and respects religious rites is a positive action.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration had agreed with a section of the influential Buddhist clergy which wanted the burial ban after arguing that corpses could contaminate ground water and spread the virus across the island.

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However, on Tuesday, State Minister Sudharshini Fernandopulle told parliament that the virus was not transmitted through water and there was no issue with waste from Covid treatment centres being discharged to the ground.

There was no immediate comment from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office on whether he will give the green light for burials and end the controversial practice of forced cremations.

The UN Human Rights Council has also criticised the practice and urged Colombo to reconsider it based on WHO guidelines which provide for safe burials of Covid victims.

More than half of all Covid dead in Sri Lanka are Muslims. Community leaders said they had a disproportionate number of victims as those affected by the virus were afraid of seeking treatment. They feared cremation if they were identified as being infected by the virus. (COLOMBO, February 10, 2021)

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