by Vihanga Perera 11 February 2021
Since March 2020, as the Covid 19 pandemic became widespread in Sri Lanka, the state imposed a prohibition over the burial of mortal remains that had been deemed Covid-infected. As a result, the country’s 9% Muslim community was situationally compelled to give consent to the cremation of their family who succumbed to the virus. The state’s decision deviated from guidelines issued by the World Health Organization who had recommended both burial and cremation as standard options in treating the dead. In fact, Sri Lanka had originally adopted both options as viable. Its turn to ‘cremation-only’ was a second thought.
Burial being customary and culturally-significant to the Muslims, from the outset, there was a protest and a plea from community leaders urging the state to make allowance for the burial of their dead. As the second wave of Covid-cases rose in Sri Lanka a reasonable number of the dead were identified as Muslim nationals. Between March and December 2020, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka lobbied at different levels to reverse the state position to one acceptable to their community. In Sinhalese-Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, cremation is predominant among the 70% majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community. While burial is at the centre of Christian and Muslim cultures – who collectively make about 20% of the population – the Christian voice was initially noticeably silent over the decree of ‘cremation-only’.
The ‘cremation-only’ position has been supported by politicians, Buddhist monks, and academics who identify with a Sinhalese-Buddhist populist platform. As numbers of deaths steadily increased, a myth was widely circulated that burial of the Covid-dead would contaminate underground water reserves. This myth was given prominent coverage by Sinhalese nationalist media. Meththika Vithanage, a Hydrologist by qualification, provided an academic face for this theory through an article she published in April 2020[i], and subsequent media appearances. Experts in the field, including leading Virologists, Microbiologists, and Immunologists appointed to a committee by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health in December 2020, have recommended burial as a viable option in disposing Covid-related bodies[ii]. In spite of the expert recomendation, the Minister of Health informed parliament in December 2020 that the government policy would remain ‘cremation only’.
The determination of the government and other majoritarian nationalist elements to withhold the right of burial to the Muslims has to be set in political context. In 2019, the election campaign of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who, in November that year, was chosen to office with a resounding victory was manufactured on a promise of ‘national security’: a concern that was deeply etched into the minds of the electorate after six coordinated bomb attacks happened on Easter Sunday, in April 2019. The attacks were carried out by a group of Muslims identified as being from an extremist radical group. The event was followed by a renewed wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric, agitations, and attacks. This followed an intermittent pattern emergent in post-Civil War Sri Lanka where, from about 2011, new ultra-Sinhalese Buddhist groups have been involved in inciting public sentiment against Muslim people and aspects of their culture and lifestyle. Incidents such as the Aluthgama riot in 2014[iii] and the country-wide attack on Muslims after an incident in Digana in February 2018[iv] are representative example. Extreme Sinhala-Buddhist-nationalist groups such as Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) have forged links with organizations like Myanmar’s 969 Movement[v], the group led by Buddhist cleric Ashin Wirathu, with a strong anti-Rohingya advocacy. The majoritarian nationalist platform supported the election of Rajapaksa in 2019. His election victory was celebrated by his partisans as a “Sinhalese-Buddhist” victory[vi]. Capitalizing on the momentum gained at the Presidential poll, in August 2020, the party led by Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Podhujana Peramuna (SLPP), won a resounding parliamentary representation with 145 seats. Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda – Sri Lanka’s pro-Sinhalese nationalist President for two terms from 2005 to 2014 – was sworn in as Prime Minister. In both elections the country’s northern and eastern districts – the historical stronghold of Tamil nationals – decisively voted against Rajapaksa and his party. In Rajapaksa’s first cabinet of 16 ministers appointed in November 2019 there were two appointees of Tamil national heritage while none were appointed to represent ethnic Muslims. In August 2020, Rajapaksa appointed a second cabinet with 27 members of which MUM Ali Sabry was the lone Muslim appointment.
The outcome of the 2019 Presidential election and the Parliamentary (General) election through which the SLPP consolidated itself is also crucial to an understanding of how the popular mindset of the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate had been conditioned against the country’s minority ethno-religious and cultural groups: specially, the Muslim. In 2018 and 2019, antagonism against the Muslim community as a whole – but, specifically their peculiar dress sense, education practices, food culture, and customs – had been aroused by a viral new media culture which contributed to a wave of fear-mongering of Muslims ‘taking over’ the country. Fear and mistrust against the Muslims were exacerbated by ungrounded claims of Muslim conspiracies to induce sexual sterilization among the Sinhalese community through food and merchandise[vii]. In February 2018, The Hindu reported at least 20 incidents of violence targeting the Muslims in 2017 alone. In February 2018, a brawl was staged in Muslim-owned restaurant in the Ampara district[viii], claiming that the food served there was mixed with substances inducing sterilization among males; and that such food was particularly served to Sinhalese males. This wave of violence was re-triggered in Digana and Teldeniya a few weeks later following a private feud between a Sinhalese and Muslim group. The presence of individuals identified with extreme Buddhist-nationalist groups was reported in areas where conflicts took place. Platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp were used to coordinate attacks and to spread fear.
The case of an ethnic Muslim medical doctor provides a textbook case study to the malicious extent to which Islamophobia has been made a lever in the majoritarian-nationalist political programme following the Easter bomb attack. Through a news report it carried a Sinhalese newspaper with a nationalist bent charged Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen of ‘sterilizing’ 4000 Sinhalese women. Shihabdeen was later arrested on an undisclosed charge and was presented in courts for amassing “wealth of suspicious origins”[ix]. Nationalist media at the time insinuated the doctor to have connections to the terrorist organization that had carried out the Easter bomb attack. Shihabdeen was charged under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Act (ICCPR) of 2007 which, unless directed from a higher court, carries a non-bail clause. Shihabdeen’s family maintained the doctor was being framed by a powerful group of people. A Muslim political party to which the doctor was affiliated expressed that the case against Shihabdeen was “stage-managed” by some Rajapaksa partisans[x] to gain an advantage at the election that was scheduled later that year.
Tabling its findings in the case against Shafi Shihabdeen, the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) reported the charges against the doctor to be ungrounded. In November 2019, when the SLPP came into power, a fresh investigation was called against Dr. Shihabdeen. Two Sinhalese nationalist leaders who lobbied in favour of Shihabdeen’s arrest and endorsed the credibility of the ‘mass sterilization’ narrative, in August 2020, were elected to parliament. One of these MPs, Rathana of Athuraliya – a Buddhist cleric – staged public demonstrations during the court-hearings of Shihabdeen’s case and was reported to allegedly threaten the Police investigators on an instance[xi]. The Shafi Shihabdeen incident is one of several such ‘controversial’ incidents in 2019 and 2020 where Muslim nationals were publicly ‘criminalized’: events that led to sensational news and the stirring of public feeling against the Muslims. Other such incidents – instances where the conduct of the Police has been called to scrutiny by the human rights regime – include the case against Abdul Rahim Mazahina who, in May 2019, was arrested under the ICCPR act for wearing a dress with the design of a ship’s wheel which the Police identified as the Buddhist ‘wheel of enlightenment’[xii]. In April 2020, Ramzy Razeek, a commentator on Facebook, was arrested and held under the ICCPR act for 161 days. The police claimed that Razeek had posted a status on Facebook that excited terrorism[xiii]. In April 2020, a prominent lawyer, Hejaaz Hisbullah, was arrested and incarcerated without charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Hisbullah was not granted confidential access to his lawyer until December 2020[xiv]. Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet from Mannar, was arrested in May 2020 for having composed a poetry collection in Tamil which, the Police claimed, included poems that incited terrorism: a charge which Tamil literary scholars who read Jazeem’s poetry book claimed was ungrounded[xv]. I cite these examples to draw attention to an unconventional application of the law to ethnic Muslims by the Sri Lankan Police which has emerged in recent years – particularly, following the Easter bombs in 2019 – which, in turn, frustrate the Muslims as a community. Following similar patterns of legal application used against Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils during the war years these arrests and detentions, in turn, propose grounds to rethink the changing map of minority persecutions in Sri Lanka.
In February 2021, the controversy surrounding the non-burial policy adopted by the Sri Lankan government continues unabated. Over a year, activists and public representatives have staged protests and resorted to discussions with the government. These have so far borne little success. Experts in the field – members of a committee appointed by the government’s Health ministry itself – have endorsed scientific proof in support of burial; and to alleviate fears and concerns over virus-spread through soil. Citing the possibility of it widening “existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance” while “inciting further hatred and violence”, the United Nations, in January 2021, called on the Sri Lankan government to halt ‘forced cremations’[xvi]. In the larger scheme of manufactured violence periodically experimented in post-war Sri Lanka, the state decree of ‘cremation-only’ is an open and official position that undermines the cultural and religious sensitivities of the Muslim community. Whether this qualifies as a form of persecution or not has to be debated and subjected to conversation. In the meantime – like in instances such as the ‘Sinhala only’ position enforced by the Official Languages Act of 1956 – ‘cremation only’, in its pro-Sinhalese nationalist implication, has sent a shockwave through Sri Lanka’s minority consciousness.
On 23 December 2020, in a video released on Facebook, social activist Shreen Saroor likened the anti-Muslim hatred on which the current Sri Lankan government rode to power to a genie that has been released from a bottle: a genie of “anti-Muslim hatred”. Been nurtured through a decade of post-war majoritarian nationalist activism the poison of this hatred has been gradually institutionalized; and its polarizing venom can be seen in institutes such as the health service – where controversial and questionable treatment of Covid-affected remains of Muslim men and women were reported[xvii] – and official government policy. The fact that the state has chosen to forego scientific recommendations to uphold a myth of soil-borne contamination lies in the realm of populist politics. How the Sri Lankan government reacts to increasing international pressure against its Covid-burial policy has to be seen in the future. However, the state’s majoritarian-minded arrogance and its insensitivity to smaller minorities regressively obstruct inclusive and pluralistic policy from which a multi-ethnic, multi-religious republic can benefit from: the elusive oasis Sri Lanka has been in search of since the end of civil war in 2009.
Saroor’s compelling metaphor of a ‘genie’ in referring to manufactured anti-Muslim feeling, and its having arrived at the state institution ring familiar alarm bells of the state’s nurture of anti-Tamil sentiments in Sri Lanka from the 1950s onwards: the relentless soft and hard assaults on a community which included legislation (such as the Official Languages Act of 1956 and the Standardization of Education introduced in 1972) passed to its disadvantage and decades of political exclusion from which radical militarism emerged towards the mid-1970s. What deteriorated into a long war of 26 years emerged from a long and patient democratic struggle for language and political rights against a state-programme of alienation. In my assessment, the state position in denying burial to Muslims is the culturally-provoking step a ruling body has adopted in Sri Lanka since 1956. It is an extreme position that defies logic, scientific reason, ethics of accommodation, and global standards in responding to the Covid pandemic. If, indeed, the non-burial clause is a political move to appease the majoritarian electorate, a united Sri Lanka calls for mature statesmanship.
Vihanga Perera is a Sri Lankan writer, researcher, and academic. He writes with an interest in conflict narratives, reconciliation, transitional justice in Sri Lanka and human rights.