By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, December 20: The Sri Lankan government, which had sought to take the bodies of Muslims who had died of COVID 19 to the Maldives for burial, has given up the idea and is expected to grant, in a few days, permission to bury the bodies in Sri Lanka itself in concrete graves in Muslim graveyards.
After the cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said that the government had given up the idea of taking the bodies to the Maldives, top Muslim leaders said that early next week (by Tuesday or Wednesday) the government is expected to finalize the design of the concrete grave (suggested by Muslim leaders) and the various precautions to be followed in burials.
Way back in April, the government had banned burial of the COVID -19 dead on the grounds that it would contaminate ground water as the water table in Sri Lanka was too high. The government had ignored the fact that burial was allowed in all countries except China (and Sri Lanka) and that WHO had sanctioned it. The government also turned a blind eye to the fact that even in Holland and the Maldives where the water table was high, burials were allowed.
But for the Muslims burial was a must as cremation was “haram”. Cremating a body is tantamount to breaking the bones of the person even if he or she is dead.
Muslim leaders then 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 had also submitted a design for the concrete grave.They suggested that the mourners might stand 50 meters away from the grave after spending three minutes beside it to say the customary prayer. The community would help indigent families bear the expenses involved in constructing the concrete grave and in getting a coffin if a coffin is made mandatory.
The government appeared to be open to this suggestion but it was dragging its feet on a decision. Frustrated, some leading Muslims appealed to foreign leaders like Mohamed Nasheed, the Speaker of the Maldivian parliament, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Malaysian Prime Minister and some Muslim leaders in Tamil Nadu, to allow Sri Lankan Muslim bodies to be buried on their soil. The leaders were open to the suggestion but wanted the deal to be a government to government one.
It was at this stage that Mohamed Nasheed sounded the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa about the idea of sending the bodies to the Maldives. Thereupon, the Lankan President made a formal request this his Maldivian counterpart Ibrahim Solih, who responded favourably and announced that he was talking to stakeholders in the Maldives about the logistics of the exercise.
Even as these diplomatic exchanges were taking place, the Muslims’ cause was being taken up Sri Lankans of other faiths also. They particularly protested against the cremation of a 20-day old baby Shykh. People tied white cloth on the gates and iron railings of the main crematorium in Colombo even though the police kept removing them. There was an all-round condemnation of the government’s insistence on cremating all bodies.
The government kept talking about an “expert committee” which had said that COVID-19 bodies would pollute the soil and ground water. But the composition of the “expert committee” was never made known. On the other hand, the Muslims and other human rights workers put out statements and videos featuring qualified and internationally known virologists to prove that the government’s contentions were baseless.
Prof. Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong said: “If the body is wrapped in water-resistant material and chemicals are used to expedite the process of decay, the possibility of even a residual amount of the COVID-19 infection seeping through the soil and contaminating water is an entirely non-scientific argument. That is a major reason why the World Health Organization and many countries in the world have no problem with burials.”
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 (20A) 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.
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 favour was a solution to the burial issue, Muslim sources revealed.
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 for which the support of the Muslims would be necessary.
The Rajapaksa government is also worried about Sri Lanka’s case coming up at the March 2021 session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Although the government has dissociated itself from an earlier resolution which it co-sponsored, it has to face resolutions sponsored by other countries. And although the US is not in the UNHRC, its proxies will put forward a resolution in March slamming Sri Lanka on various war time accountability and ethnic reconciliation issues. The US could act tough as its proposal to include Sri Lanka in its Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact with a grant of US$ 480 million, had been spurned.
The Muslim burial issues will be on the top of the litany of complaints at the UNHRC this time. Hence the urgency to solve the burial problem and bring the curtains down on the controversy.