By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, December 15: The Sri Lankan government, which had banned the burial of the COVID dead at the beginning of the pandemic in April citing public health issues, is likely to accept the Muslim community’s proposal to bury corpses in concrete graves in their own graveyards, according to Hilmy Ahamed, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.
“The acceptance could come soon, say, in a week or so,” Ahamed said.
“This proposal is not new,” he added. “It was made as far back as April, when the epidemic had broken out in Sri Lanka and the government banned the burial of the COVID dead and decreed cremation citing public health issues.”
The government’s diktat was based on an unfounded notion that burial of COVID infected bodies will contaminate the water table which is high in Sri Lanka, Ahamed said.
“This notion has been rejected by Prof.Malik Peiris, the renowned pathologist and virologist at the University of Hong Kong. Peiris said that viruses, unlike bacteria, cannot survive in dead bodies (or dead cells) and that they can be carried only by running water.”
Nevertheless, to assuage fears in the higher echelons of the government, Muslim leaders proposed that a Muslim dying of COVID be wrapped in a body bag, put in a concrete grave which will have one and a half feet of soil in it. A chemical could be sprayed on the body bag to let it and the body inside de-compose in a week or so. The Muslims have submitted a design for the concrete grave which is being examined by the government. If the government insists on using a coffin, the design will have to be altered suitably, but this is not a suitable option, Ahamed said.
While the burial can be carried out by qualified health workers, family members standing 50 meters away could be given three minutes to say the prayer, the Muslims have suggested.
“Initially, the government paid no heed to this suggestion because of an entrenched fear of the unknown coronavirus. There was even propaganda that Islamic terrorists could use the virus to wage biological warfare,” Ahamed recalled.
Meanwhile, Muslims continued to peacefully and consistently agitate for their religious duty to bury the body (as cremation is forbidden in Islam). The issue got bad publicity internationally, especially in the Western media. Pressure was being mounted by the international community too.
The UN’s Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, Hannah Singer, wrote to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa strongly urging his government to accept burial as a way of disposing off the COVID dead. One of the points she made which might have forced the government think anew on the issue was that in their desperation not to submit to cremation, the Muslims might not report cases of COVID among them. This will adversely affect government’s efforts to contain the pandemic, the UN official warned.
20 th.Amendment as a factor
Another factor which might have made the government think fresh is the help the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had to seek from Muslim Members of Parliament when it desperately needed to ensure the passing of the 20 th.Constitutional Amendment with the required two thirds majority. The 20A was meant to arm the Executive President (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) with enhanced powers which he had been seeking to implement his development plans.
Although the SLPP alliance had two thirds majority in the House, defections from its ranks were very much on the cards because not every ruling alliance MP was happy about giving the Executive President the over-riding powers envisaged by the 20A.
It was at this critical juncture that six Muslim MPs from the opposition benches responded to overtures made by the SLPP organizer Basil Rajapaksa to vote for the 20A. The quid pro quo for this great political favor was a solution to the burial issue, Muslim sources revealed.
With supporters from some leaders of the Muslim community, the six cross-voting MPs reactivated the proposal for burial in concrete graves (with additional precautions). The matter is now being discussed at the highest level in the Ministry of Health and a solution is expected soon, the Tamil daily Virakesari reported.
The other factor making the government think afresh on the burial issue is its anxiety to hold the long pending elections to the nine Provincial Councils.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a hard boiled politician, is keen on reviving the dormant Provincial Councils because he needs to consolidate the power and mass appeal of the SLPP. The Provincial Councils are an important tier in the three-tiered representative political structure in Sri Lanka. The PCs train second and third line of leaders of political parties. With the Lankan economy likely to emerge from the pandemic in the first half of 2021 with a growth rate of 3.5%, elections could be held in the first few months of the New Year.
While the SLPP won the Presidential election in November 2019 and the parliamentary elections in August 2020 almost entirely on support from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, there is no guarantee that such support will be there in the PC and other elections to follow. There will certainly be an ant-incumbency factor operating then. Also, in elections where the constituencies are small and multi-ethnic, parties have to seek multi-ethnic and multi-religious support. Hence the effort to be receptive to Muslim demands at this juncture.
Maldives for unclaimed bodies
While Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa asked officials to look for suitable lands in Sri Lanka for burial, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came up with the idea of sending unclaimed Muslim bodies to the Maldives for burial. Gotabaya wrote to the Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih and the latter was receptive to the idea. Solih is now consulting stakeholders in his country on how to implement the proposal.
According to Hilmy Ahamed, burial in the Maldives will apply only to the unclaimed Muslim bodies which now number 17. Some Muslims had refused to accept bodies of relations and family members if they were not allowed to bury them. More Muslim families are likely to follow suit if the government continues to be indifferent to their pleas.
Be that as it may, Ahamed feels that the proposal to take the bodies to the Maldives is not practical. Nor would it be fair on the part of the government to palm off Sri Lankan bodies to a country where the water table is higher than in Sri Lanka.
Maldivian comments on the issue on Twitter vary. Some are happy to be of help to Sri Lankan Muslims on the basis on Islamic Brotherhood but some others point out that the Maldives has no space and cannot be turned into a graveyard of another country. Predictably, Sri Lankan Muslims tweeted to say that it is their birthright to be buried in their own country which no government should deny.
It is pointed out that all countries except China and Sri Lanka allow burial as per WHO norms. “Even Holland where the water table is very high, allows burial,” Ahamed pointed out.
Dr.Malik Peiris speaks on this issue in the following audio: