Explained: Why the overturning of the Covid-19 burying ban in Sri Lanka has geopolitical significance

Sri Lanka on Friday overturned its controversial order banning the burial of the bodies of those who have died from Covid-19.

The reversal came the same week when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan traveled to Sri Lanka for a two-day visit on February 23-24, and after months of international pressure and protests from Muslim groups.

The ordinance, which had been in effect since April last year, had been criticized for targeting minorities.

The controversial burial ban

Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic spread across continents, the Sri Lankan government in April passed an order banning the burials of Covid-19 victims in the country. He came amid concerns by influential Buddhist monks that burials could contaminate groundwater – claims that several experts have dismissed as baseless. Under this order, burials were strictly prohibited and all bodies were to be cremated.

The move has been criticized by rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as well as leaders of Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist communities. The World Health Organization (WHO) also said there was no risk of contamination and recommended both the burial and cremation of those who died from Covid-19.

The Islamic world was appalled, as Muslims traditionally bury their dead in front of the holy city of Mecca. Sri Lankan community leaders accused the move of prolonging the state’s persecution of Muslims. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, composed of 57 members, has also expressed concern.

The order was criticized around the world in December when Sri Lankan authorities ordered the forced cremation of at least 19 Muslim victims of the virus, including a baby, after families failed to claim their bodies. the morgue, according to an AFP report.

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The Muslim community, numbering around 11% of Sri Lanka’s 2.1 crore population, has had strained relations with the state and with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the past decade, with riots shattering calm once every few years. But tensions rose after the synchronized Easter suicide bombings by a group of men and women who proclaimed themselves members of ISIS.

Visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently told parliament that Muslim burials would be allowed, Imran Khan tweeted his praise. “We welcome the assurance of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa given to the Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who have died of COVID-19,” Khan tweeted, although the government did not have not yet followed up on this assurance.

International human rights watchdog Amnesty International had also urged Khan to raise the issue with Sri Lanka during his visit to the country this week. Sri Lankan media have speculated that this could have been one of the reasons why the planned speech by the Prime Minister visiting Parliament was canceled by the hosts.

On Tuesday, the first day of Khan’s visit, Muslim protesters in the capital Colombo carried a fake jenazah, or coffin, criticizing the government’s burial policy. A day later, Muslim parliamentarians asked Khan to raise the issue with the leaders of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government lifted the ban on Friday.

According to the BBC, Sri Lanka now awaits Pakistan’s support for the 46th ordinary session of the CHR, which is currently taking place virtually and lasts until March 23. Five years ago, Sri Lanka pledged at the HRC to conduct a time-limited investigation into war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lanka now faces another resolution at the current session.

The draft resolution is based on a damning report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) that was submitted to the Human Rights Council on January 27.