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Explained: Why the reversal of Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 burial ban holds geopolitical significance

The reversal has come in the same week when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Sri Lanka on a two-day visit on 23-24 February, and after months of international pressure and protests by Muslim groups.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 27, 2021 9:15:34 am
Imran Khan, Mahinda RajapaksaPakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa talk at the end of the Trade and Investments conference, during Khan's two-day visit, in Colombo, Sri Lanka February 24, 2021. (Source: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Sri Lanka on Friday reversed its controversial order banning the burial of bodies of those who died of Covid-19. The reversal has come in the same week when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Sri Lanka on a two-day visit on 23-24 February, and after months of international pressure and protests by Muslim groups.

The order, which had been in force since April last year, had been criticised for targeting minorities.

The controversial burial ban

Soon after the coronavirus pandemic spread across continents, the Sri Lankan government in April passed an order that banned burials of Covid-19 victims in the country. It came amid concerns by influential Buddhist monks that burials could contaminate groundwater– claims that several experts dismissed as baseless. Under the order, burials were strictly not allowed, and all bodies were to be cremated.

The move was criticised by rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as well as by Muslim, Catholic and some Buddhist community leaders. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also said that there was no risk of contamination, and recommended both the burial and cremation of those who died of Covid-19.

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The Islamic world was appalled, as Muslims traditionally bury their dead facing the holy city of Mecca. Community leaders in Sri Lanka accused the move as being an extension of the state’s persecution of Muslims. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also expressed concern.

The order was criticised globally in December when Sri Lankan authorities ordered the forced cremation of at least 19 Muslim victims of the virus, including a baby, after families did not claim their bodies from the morgue, an AFP news report said.

The Muslim community, whose numbers are about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 2.1 crore population, has had tense relations with the state and with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the last decade, with riots shattering the calm once every few years. But the tensions have spiked after the synchronised Easter suicide bombings by a group of men and women who proclaimed themselves to be members of ISIS.

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Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s visit

When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa indicated in Parliament recently that Muslim burials would be allowed, Imran Khan tweeted his praise. “We welcome Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance given in Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID-19,” Khan tweeted, although the government was yet to act upon that assurance.

International Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International had also urged Khan to take up the issue with Sri Lanka during his visit to the country this week. Sri Lankan media reports speculated that this could have been one reason why the visiting Prime Minister’s planned Parliament address was cancelled by the hosts.

On Tuesday, the first day of Khan’s visit, Muslim protesters in capital Colombo carried a mock jenazah, or coffin, criticising the government’s burial policy. A day later, Muslim parliamentarians asked Khan to take up the issue with Sri Lanka’s leaders. On Friday, the Sri Lankan government lifted the ban.

According to the BBC, Sri Lanka now expects Pakistan’s support at the 46th regular session of the UNHRC, which is currently taking place virtually and lasts until March 23. Five years ago, Sri Lanka had committed at the UNHRC to conduct a time-bound investigation of war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lanka now faces another resolution at the current session.

The draft resolution is based on a damning report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) that was submitted to the Human Rights Council on January 27.

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