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Shortly after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka last week, the Sri Lankan government announced on February 26 that it would remove the ban on burials of those who have died to Covid-19, which has been in place since March, 2020. Less than a week later, the government stated that they could only be buried on the island of Iranathivu, which is 300km, or 186 miles northwest of Colombo, the capital. Prior to the Pakistan PM’s visit, the Sri Lankan Parliament had cancelled their meeting with him for fear of him raising concerns of the forced cremations.
This is not the first time in the past month that Sri Lanka’s government has gone back on its word in regards to forced cremations. On February 10, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to a Parliament lawmaker that he would allow those who died to Covid-19 to be buried, but within days, at least three Muslims had still been forced into cremation, as the Prime Minister has no authority to make such changes to the law.
The main excuse the Sri Lankan is making against burial is that Covid will contaminate groundwater, which has been refuted by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations experts, medical experts, human rights organizations, and others – all of which say it is safe to bury the deceased if taking proper precautions.
Iranathivu houses 165 families who are mostly Tamil Catholics and returned to the island in 2017 after 25 years of displacement. Many residents have already spoken out in protest saying that these loved ones need to be buried with their families at their own burial grounds, not on this island.
For the average person to be able to reach Iranathivu would be expensive, inconvenient and add to the trauma of losing a loved one. Of the over 450 Covid deaths in Sri Lanka, nearly 300 have been those of minorities; both Christians and Muslims bury their dead.
Next week, the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting and a Resolution will be introduced to protect the human rights of all those living in the country, to prosecute gross violators of human rights, and it recognizes that the pandemic has affected the freedom of religion of the Muslim community by the Sri Lankan government. The Council will look at how forced cremation has caused pain and distress to minority Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka. The final cut-off date for tabling this Resolution is March 11 and voting will be either March 22 or 23.
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