Even as proceedings at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) continued in Geneva, the Sri Lankan Government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa , in a significant political move, backtracked from its rigid stance on permitting the burial of COVID -19 victims of the Islamic faith in Sri Lanka.
While suspending on the one hand, its earlier order that COVID -19 victims should only be buried in the Iranaitheevu island on the Gulf of Mannar located ten KM away from the coast of Kilinochchi district, the Govt on the other hand gave permission and clearance for COVID -19 victims to be buried at a selected location in the Oddamaavaddy area of Batticaloa district.
After Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Colombo visit ,the Gotabaya Govt relaxed rules on the forced cremation of Muslim OVID victims. It gazetted provisions enabling the burial of COVID victims. Later the Govt issued guideline directives through the health ministry stipulating that burials could only be permitted in Iranaitheevu, home to over 165 Tamil Catholic families who had been displaced during the war. The Iranaitheevu community protested strongly against the unilateral decision of the Govt being taken without consulting the residents of the Island.
The move to permit burials in Iranaitheevu alone was firmly opposed by Muslim organizations and political parties who proposed that burials be allowed in selected places in Muslim populated areas in accordance with health ministry guidelines. Some alternative venues in Muslim areas were also suggested. Letters of concern were also sent to the global Organization of Islamic Cooperation(OIC) and the World Muslim Congress(WMC).
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem MP encapsuled the feelings of the Muslim community over the enforced burial at Iranaitheevu through the following tweet “ Banish the bodies to Iranativu! They created the false narrative and wish to prove they were right all along. There is no end to their sadistic pleasure in harassing a hopelessly traumatized community. Pathetic racism prevails!
Earlier at the UNHRC in Geneva where a resolution on Sri Lanka has been tabled by the UK along with Canada, Germany,Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia, Colombo had argued during informal discussions that the resolution should not refer to the ban on burials of Muslim CoVID victims in Sri Lanka as it was not in force.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva , C.A. Chandraprema insisted that the co-sponsors remove the reference to mandatory cremations, because it was “obsolete” after Government had reversed its policy.
With the burial issue being raised again nationally and internationally , the Gotabaya Govt suspended its insistence on Iranaitheevu and allowed accommodation of other places. Health Services officials reuested Provincial and district officials to identify poential sites for burial of COVID -19 victims.
Following the greenlight given by the Govt, health authorities in in the Eastern province – which among the nine provinces has the largest concentration of Muslims – picked a burial ground in Oddamavaddy in Batticaloa district.
Since health authorities objected to COVID victims being buried with others in the 10 acre burial grounds, an alternative site was identified. A three-acre plot of land on high ground owned by an Oddamaavaddy resident MFM Jauffer in “Majma Nagar ”at Soodupathinasenai was approved as the burial ground for COVID victims. Jauffer who was earlier the president of the New Star Sports club in Oddamaavaddy willingly donated his property for the worthy cause.
Thereafter matters moved fast. The body of a Muslim woman victim from Koaddaimunai in Batticaloa town was the first COVID victim to be buried at the Majma Nagar burial grounds in Oddamaavaddy. This was in the evening of Friday March 5th 2021. Shortly afterwards two bodies of COVID victims from Eravoor in Batticaloa were buried at the site. This was followed by six other bodies of COVID victims from the East. These comprised three from Saainthamarutdhu and one each from Kattankudi, Addalaichenai and Akkaraippatru.
Nine bodies were buried on Mrch 5th. Another eight bodies of Muslim COVID Victims are expected to be buried at Oddamaavaddy on Saturday March 6th. These comprise three from Anuradhapura district and five from Gampaha district.
Meanwhile the Eastern health services director, Dr. Alagaiyah Lathakaran approved another burial site for Muslim COVID victims in the Irakkaamam area in Amparai district.
The bodies of Muslim Covid Victims being buried in Oddamavady are those of persons who had succumbed to the Virus mant weeks and months ago. They had been kept in cold storage in freezers at different hospitals. Extra freezers had been donated by several Muslim businessmen.
However several bodies of Muslim COVID victims had been mandatorily cremated by Sri Lankan authorities in the past months. This had caused much resentment and sorrow among Muslims as cremation was against tenets of the Islamic faith.
China and Sri Lanka were reportedly the only two countries in the world who implemented the policy of forced cremation for Muslim Covid victims. Now Sri Lanka thanks mainly to events in Geneva has allowed burials also. This has given uch relief to the beleaguered Muslim community in the Island. It is to be hoped that the burials of Muslim COVID Victims would continue regardless of the outcome at the UNHRC in Geneva.
D,B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org