Sri Lankan Muslims home and away, protest denial of burial rights in motherland

By Siva Parameswaran

It is not even RIP for the Muslims in Sri Lanka.

And, the unscientific stand of the government has put the Sri Lankan Muslims in a limbo who are caught between an unrelenting regime and religious sensitivities.

As Sri Lanka continues to deny their Muslim citizens the ‘right of burial’, protests have erupted in the country and abroad adding to the international outcry. The GOSL has directed all Covid-19 dead bodies be cremated while Islam says the ‘Janasa’ should be buried.

The Rajapaksa government is adamantly not allowing the Muslims who lost their lives due to Covid-19 infection to be buried in accordance with Islamic tradition even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) says burying the dead will not spread the infection. 

Demanding their basic religious right of burial in their homeland, Muslims held protests over the entire North and East of the nation while the Tamils too joined to mark their protest against government policy of forced cremations.

Expressing their strong condemnation, civic groups in the north - eastern region urged the government to budge from its rigid stand of not allowing those dead due to Covid-19 to be buried.

The protests extending from Mannar to Mullaitivu in the North and Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai in the East saw people from various walks of life joining and extending their support for the religious freedom of the minority communities.

Communal solidarity

Cutting across religious beliefs Hindu Priests and Christian clergy were among others who came to the streets expressing solidarity with their Muslim brethren. Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians too expressed their concerns and condemnation to the GOSL and urged them to respect the religious rights and customs of the minority communities.

Over the last few years allegedly targeted attacks on the Muslim community and their commercial establishment have been taking place throughout the country.

A white cloth protest was also held by Muslims in Colombo by tying a piece of white cloth at the crematorium premises where the ‘janasa’ of a 20 day old Muslim child was cremated rather than being buried. Large number of Sinhala and Tamil activists and politicians alongside Muslims and those who supported their demands tied white cloth pieces and white nappies as a mark of protest and respect to baby Shaikh. The north and east protest gathered momentum after the police and intelligence units removed the material from the gates and fence surrounding the Borella crematorium.

As the Sri Lankan Government continues its hard line stand, over a dozen and half Sri Lankan Muslim Diaspora organisations in the UK has called upon the government back home to respect their religious freedom.

Sri Lankan President and former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa has recently requested land from his Maldivian counterpart to bury those Muslims who succumb to Covid infection. The Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid confirmed this in a tweet while the Sri Lankan government spokesperson and minister Keheliya Rambukwelle denied any knowledge of this extraordinary request.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's justice minister has expressed fear of Muslim youth being pushed to what he called extremism.

"If the dead can be buried in the Maldives, why not here?" asked Mohammed Ali Sabry in an interview with a local YouTube channel.

Diaspora Muslims appeal to Maldives

The UK based Diaspora organisations in their letter to the Maldivian High Commissioner have urged his government to reconsider offering support to the Sri Lankan government’s request of burying those dead due to Covid-19 in their soil. They say the Sri Lankan government is taking forward a plan with a hidden agenda which will have repercussions both politically and socially to the country’s Muslim community.

Muslim Diaspora members have expressed their deep concern after Minister Abdulla Shahid tweeted that the Republic of Maldives is considering facilitating Islamic funeral rites of the SL Muslims succumbing to Covid-19.

The signatories to letter have rubbished the Sri Lankan government expert team’s claim that the dead bodies could be used as a "biological weapon" through soil after burial. They point out the lack of scientific data to back the GOSL’s unjustified claims.

Even Islamic countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey where thousands of people have perished due to the pandemic have buried them. Neighbouring India too-which has a huge Muslim population has allowed the community to bury their loved ones who lost their lives due to the yet to be contained virus infection.

In their appeal to the Maldivian government the Diaspora organisations have said, “It is worth noting that the idea of exporting COVID-19 bodies is not an option the general public in Sri Lanka can accept nor afford against the constitutional guarantees at present, especially during the prevailing situation”.

‘Denial of fundamental rights’

While criticising the GOSL’s proposal of sending the bodies to Maldives for a proper Islamic burial, they say such a move will also deny the rights of the family members and cut them off from post burial religious and cultural activities including visiting the grave yard and offering prayers.
Moreover travelling to a foreign country is not an option that everyone can afford, nor feasible in the current circumstances.

The Diaspora organisations have taken this opportunity to counter the idea implanted by certain extremist elements that Sri Lankan Muslims were foreigners and do not have any deep rooted connection to the nation.

Sinhala Buddhist hardliners have from time and again claimed that Sri Lankan Muslims are not ‘sons of the soil’ and continue to intimidate them and curtail their religious freedom. 

No self respecting democratic country will ever seek another sovereign nation to accept the bodies of their citizens to bury in their land. As far this writer is aware no such request has been made by any nation in history.

Even when expatriates die in other counties the home nation takes all efforts to bring back their bodies for burial/cremation as per the custom of the deceased member’s family.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.