In a joint statement UN Special Rapporteurs Ahmed Shaheed, Fernand de Varennes, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule and Tlaleng Mofokeng, have condemned Sri Lanka’s practice of forced cremations warning that it “ran the risk of increasing prejudice, intolerance and violence”.
Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, Admiral Jayanath Colombage, has responded to criticism denying that policy was discriminatory stating:
“It is a matter based on scientific and health regulations. It is not a political issue. It is not an ethnic issue […] I don’t see any discrimination. It is a matter of science.”
At the start of this year, Sri Lanka’s Medical Association (SLMA) came out against the policy of forced cremations, following intense international backlash, and noting that the policy had “the potential to cause much civil unrest”. The World Health Organisation and numerous medical officials have maintained that there is no scientific basis for the denial of Muslim burials.
Over 190 countries have permitted Muslim burials, this includes Myanmar. Sri Lanka remains one of the countries which denies the Muslim burial rites.
Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism
In the UN officials’ statements, they maintain that decisions were “based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to the persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country”.
“Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence”, they added.
A further consequence they note is that the “policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination”. This would also hamper attempts to contain the pandemic.
The UN officials also called on the Sri Lankan government “to stop the forced cremation of COVID-19 bodies, to take all necessary measures to combat disinformation, hate speech and stigmatization” of Muslims and other minorities, “as a vector of the pandemic, and to provide remedy and ensure accountability for cremations that were carried out by error.”
The foreign secretary also criticised the Tamil diaspora for showing solidarity with Muslims on the island, who have been protesting against the forced cremation of suspected coronavirus victims.
“I see the LTTE Diaspora group trying to use this to see that there is discrimination in the country,” commented Colombage.
Across the North-East, Tamils and Muslims protested against this policy and demanded that the government change course and protect Muslim religious freedom.
Read the full UN statement here.