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Burial Rights

Art by Shaumya

The Sri Lankan state has doubled down on a particularly cruel policy this month, continuing to forcibly cremate the bodies of Muslims who have died from suspected coronavirus infections. The practice, which runs deeply against Islamic belief, has caused a great deal of pain across the island and consternation around the globe. Sri Lanka though has refused to budge. Instead, the regime has defied pleas from Muslims, calls from UN Special Rapporteurs and directly contradicted guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The continuation of this practice, which has no basis in science or public health, is not just another reminder of the intrinsic racism that runs through the Sri Lankan state, but a worrying marker of how comfortable this regime has become in freely exercising it.

Whilst the pandemic may have caused initial confusion over the safest and most respectful methods to deal with the dead, several months later there is no uncertainty. WHO is clear that both burials and cremations are safe for suspected COVID-19 victims. Even Myanmar, which is currently at the International Court of Justice fighting charges of genocide against its Muslim minority, has allowed Muslim coronavirus victims to be buried. Sri Lanka, however, continues to cremate all victims, causing both sorrow and outrage. News emerged this month of a Muslim infant as young as 20-days-old, being forcibly cremated without the consent or knowledge of the family. Adding insult to injury, authorities reportedly asked the family to cover the cost of the cremation. As white cloths were tied to cemetery gates in a small and peaceful act of protest, Sri Lankan security forces promptly removed them. The state has even commenced talks to ship bodies abroad, rather than allow them to be buried on the island. Tamils on the island can attest to the familiarity of such acts of senseless cruelty, and the knowledge that they herald a descent into more pervasive persecution.

The lack of tangible international consequence on this issue has been particularly noticeable. The Sri Lankan state has been left feeling no compulsion to even pretend to try and accommodate Muslim sentiments or adhere to liberal principles. Even the Arab world, which Sri Lanka’s cash strapped economy relies on heavily for remittances, has been hushed in its condemnation. Meanwhile Western states, who are discussing how to forge a path forward on accountability and human rights at the UN Human Rights Council, have remained conspicuously silent. As international apathy continues, this government continues on its path of structural militarisation, Sinhala colonisation and authoritarianism that will cement a supremacist regime on the island for decades to come. The longer this goes unchecked, the harder it will be to reverse. 

Indeed, this regime’s moves are part of a ethno-nationalist project that holds wider legitimacy within the Sinhala polity. Tellingly, there is no widespread campaign against the forced cremations by opposition leaders. Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, whilst routinely denied by many Sri Lankan liberals, underpins much public support for this regime - one that has dominated both presidential and parliamentary elections. Even after several senior Muslims campaigned for the Rajapaksas and even after Muslim politicians voted in favour of the regime’s 20th Amendment to strengthen the president’s office, the state continues to demonstrate open contempt towards them. For decades, rather than resist the Sinhala Buddhist project, Muslim leaders accommodated and complied with the state, in the hope of being granted a degree of tolerance within it. After the elimination of the Tamil armed struggle however, Muslim cooperation has been repaid with disdain, discrimination and even violence.

Amidst Sri Lanka’s heightening majoritarianism and the hesitancy of Muslim leaders to speak out, it is the Tamil polity and civil society that has been most vociferous in its solidarity. A powerful speech in Sri Lanka’s parliament by the Tamil National People’s Front’s (TNPF) Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, condemning the forced cremations, resonated widely across the island, whilst several protests and statements of condemnation came out of the North-East. The moves come as Tamil parliamentarians from all major parties voted against the 20th Amendment, and Tamil political actors continue to lead calls for demilitarisation, media freedom and justice for enforced disappearances. Sadly, the creeping criminalisation of their lives which Muslims have begun to glimpse over the last decade, is a reality with which Tamils on the island have lived for decades. Sri Lanka’s history of nation-building is replete with such measures, arriving under the cover of national security, calculated to be ignored internationally as niche or bureaucratic snags, while the affected community is left questioning their very survival on the island. No amount of appeasement will quell the tide of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism that has attacked Tamils and Muslims on the island, again and again, over the last seventy years. Without solidarity and resistance, accountability and justice, the waves will only loom larger.

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