The Government on Thursday night finally bowed down to local and international pressure and lifted the ban on burials for the COVID dead, thus ending months of protests and anguish amongst the nation’s 2 million strong Muslim community. It did so by simply adding two little words to the original gazette text which had made [...]


Government finally unlocks Muslims’ doorway to Heaven

Two little words in government gazette end months of protests and anguish as ban on burials is at last lifted

The Government on Thursday night finally bowed down to local and international pressure and lifted the ban on burials for the COVID dead, thus ending months of protests and anguish amongst the nation’s 2 million strong Muslim community.

It did so by simply adding two little words to the original gazette text which had made cremation mandatory to those who succumb to the coronavirus, namely, the words ‘or burial’ to follow ‘cremation’.

Ever since the COVID crisis began, the Lankan Government had taken its cues on how to tackle its spread from the World Health Organisation except its advice on how to dispose of the COVID dead. In March last year, the WHO issued its interim guidance report which gave the all clear for the COVID dead to be buried in accordance with certain prescribed procedure, stating it was safe  and that there had been no evidence to suggest otherwise.

THE RIGHT TO ONE’S BODY BOTH IN LIFE AND IN DEATH: Muslim protests on Wednesday in Colombo

The Lankan Government, however, decided to play it safe and, following China’s policy, decreed mandatory cremations as the sole means of disposing the COVID dead. This, of course, affected the Muslims who strongly believe in physical resurrection on Judgement Day before they enter one of the eight doors of Jannah or Paradise or even the main gate to Heaven. Cremation for the Muslims is banned. Burial is the prescribed method in the Quran. Burning the dead is considered a form of mutilation, forbidden by Allah.

But despite WHO’S Interim Guidance Update of September 2020 which held again that burial was safe and that cremation should be a matter of cultural choice; despite the International Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also recommending that burials be permitted; despite the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer pointing out that prohibition of burials of COVID-19 victims was not backed by any scientific evidence; the Lankan Government refused to budge from its April gazetted  policy of cremating the victims, citing dangers of further spreading the virus through the underground water table if allowed to be buried.

Even when the Health Minister’s own expert subcommittee chaired by senior Professor in Microbiology Prof.  Jennifer Perera submitted its report on December 31 endorsing burial for the COVID dead, the Government remained, like the rock of Gibraltar, committed to its intransigent stance and refused burials, preferring, instead, to depend on the Health Minister’s main committee headed by Consultant Judicial Medical Officer and Forensic Pathologist Dr. Channa Perera, which had, in its report submitted two weeks earlier to the Jennifer Report, maintained that cremation was the only safe mode.

On January 7, in response to a question, Health Minister Pavithra told Parliament the government will continue with mandatory cremations, according to Dr. Channa Perera’s main committee’s report and the decision to cremate will not be withdrawn on religious, political or any other grounds.

In April last year Dr. Channa Perera, a consultant Forensic Pathologist attached to the Health Ministry, was quoted on BBC’s New Hour, that the “government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used a biological weapon.”

While the rest of the world approved COVID burials, Lanka and China alone continued with mandatory cremations, despite a mountain of evidence confronting that view.

On February 10, things took a different turn sending Muslims over the moon when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa rose in Parliament and, in a brief reply to a question raised whether the Muslims will be allowed to bury their COVID dead, assured the House that thenceforth ‘’We will allow the bodies to be buried.”

But the Muslim ecstasy was short-lived. The following day, though Pakistani PM Imran Khan and American Ambassador Alaina Teplitz had both tweeted their delight over the Lankan ‘PM’s announcement to end mandatory cremation of COVID victims’, a government backbencher stepped in to deny the import of the Prime Ministerial pronouncement.

SLPP Gampaha MP Kokila Gunawardena addressing a press conference refuted that the Prime Minister had given the nod for COVID dead Muslim burials but that he had only said in Parliament that’’ Muslim burials will be allowed’’. The SLPP MP said ‘’the Prime Minister or the President cannot decide on permitting COVID burial and it will be done by a committee of experts.’’

Why, and on whose writ, did this SLPP MP Kokila play nanny and act as the Prime Minister’s protector when all watching Parliament’s televised proceedings, including foreign diplomats, heard and understood exactly what the Prime Minister meant by his answer to SJB Marikkar’s question on Muslim COVID burials? Saw and heard also how the Prime Minister insisted on answering the question even after the Speaker had ruled it out of order and had warned Marikkar not to waste time in the House by raising questions that had no connection to the matters being debated?

The Prime Minister’s good intention to provide justice to the Muslims that received world acclaim should not have been distorted by an interloper holding press conferences outside the House, attempting to interpret the Premier’s unequivocal statement. If the Prime Minister was misunderstood, surely, he himself would have been the first to rectify the misapprehension?

To add worse injury, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Udaya Gammanpila addressing the Cabinet press briefing on February 16, had the audacity to say  the Prime Minister’s COVID burial statement was his ‘personal opinion’. Doesn’t Gammanpila understand that in Parliament one does not tender personal opinions in answer to official questions, like one is wont to do at coffee houses to pass the time of day crossing swords in jest?

On February 9, the day before the PM’s announcement, COVID Minister Sudharshani Fernandopulle told Parliament in reply to a COVID related question, ‘’The COVID virus was not transmitted through water.’’

As the SUNDAY PUNCH of February 14 commented under the headline ‘Let the Muslims bury their COVID dead’, Sudharshani’s ‘tacit reply shattered the first and last defence raised against allowing the burial of Muslims who have died of COVID on the grounds that the coronavirus may seep out of the corpse and contaminate the ground water. The last bastion against Muslim COVID burials had fallen.’

So what made the Government finally relent?

Did Dr. Channa Perera’s main expert committee which had clung so long to outdated views have a sudden change of heart that made it agree with the ton of evidence the rest of the world possessed and acted upon? If so what was the enlightening scrap of evidence that finally coffined its antediluvian views and moved them to agree on burials?

Or was it Pakistani Prime Minister’s exhortation to the Government to allow COVID burials coupled with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation raising the issue of mandatory cremation of COVID victims in Lanka as a denial of Muslim rights to be buried when dead at the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council that did the trick?

Is allowing a recent foreign guest of state and the international community to interfere in the internal affairs and decisions of a sovereign state when it is in error, against the interest of its people? Or is it worth enduring the seeming affront for the global goodwill it wins and the justice it brings to its citizenry? Justice to one is justice to all.

Especially when human rights are no longer confined within an individual nation’s ambit but transcend natural and man-made boundaries and are universal in law, in fact and in spirit.

So sorry, Mr. Khan, but your slip is showing since your mask is missing

FACE TO FACE: Maskless Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan shares a touching moment with his Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa (Reuters)

Pakistan may have helped Lanka during her dark days of terrorism but its present Prime Minister former fast bowler Imran Khan let the side down when he brashly flung customary house rules prescribed by the host nation to the winds and breezily flouted the travel bubble COVID code of health guidelines laid out for visiting dignitaries.

When a high-powered Chinese delegation arrived in Lanka last year in early October, they dutifully followed COVID protocol and scrupulously wore their face masks at all times when they met the President, the Prime Minister and other officials. So did the former American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conscientiously wear his mask during his visit to Lanka late October as did India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar religiously wear his face mask on his three day visit last month. All three of them observed and respected the country’s health guidelines to the letter.

But not so for visiting Prime Minister Imran Khan who arrived in the island on Tuesday evening on an event packed 24-hour visit. Apart from the airport ceremony on arrival, at every other function he attended, Imran Khan showed his slip and his scant regard for the nation’s COVID protocol, by not wearing the globally recommended face mask, even in the presence of those in the high risk category.

He did not wear his face mask when he arrived at Temple Trees on Tuesday evening  to be greeted on the door step by the face masked Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Neither did he wear his face mask when he walked into the Presidential Secretariat on Wednesday morning where he was greeted by President Gotabaya wearing his face mask.

Neither did he wear his face mask when he attended the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference 2021 held at Shangri-La; and addressed the business community with Lankan Prime Minister on the dais wearing his face mask. Here, though falling short of giving the face mask advice by deed, he succeeded in giving economic advice by word when he told his audience, ‘one thing you need to create wealth in any country is  stability, is political stability having good relationships with your neighbours.’

Neither did he come padded with his face mask on when he graced the lunch hosted by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa in his honour. The occasion was attended by a host of parliamentarians and cricketers, many of whom were also maskless, including Kumar Sangakkara, following in the style of their cricketing idol. Notable amongst them, posing wide eyed with awe for photos with Khan, were Arjuna Ranatunga, Sanath Jayasuriya and Muttiah Muralitharan all of them without masks.

True, Khan has been vaccinated with the first dose earlier in the month. But scientists have warned that vaccinations alone will not give one complete protection, especially if one hasn’t still got the booster dose four weeks later. They have also warned that even if one is vaccinated, he or she will certainly still remain a potential carrier. The vaccine doesn’t prevent transmission. Perhaps some MPs and some cricketing personalities, both local and foreign, suffer the belief that the first COVID jab automatically transforms them to some sort of demigods before whom COVID prostrates in meek surrender.

On February 2 Khan was publicly injected with the Chinese made Sinopharm vaccine, the second man in Pakistan to be vaccinated, the first being a doctor. Unlike in Lanka where the President and Prime Minister had taken a back seat and let the front line workers be vaccinated first, Imran Khan opened the bowling for the Pakistani vaccination programme which was made possible with China’s donation of 500,000 doses to debt ridden Pakistan.

After thanking China profusely, the newly vaccinated Khan declared that the vaccine will then be administered to health workers working with Covid-19 patients, followed by the elderly in the high-risk age group. He then appealed to the public to follow the Covid-19 standard operating procedures and wear a mask.

“If Allah has blessed Pakistan as compared to the rest of the world, we should be grateful for that and take full precautions,” Imran Khan emphasised. “If there is anything that slows the spread of the virus, it is a mask.”

So why, the double standards? Why? Does the virus move only on slow turning Pakistani wickets but remains suspended in flight on thrice blessed Lanka’s fast paced pitches that the wearing of masks in Colombo is rendered redundant?

Before arriving in Lanka, the Pakistani Prime Minister was billed, at his own request, to be accorded the honour to address Lanka’s Parliament in the same way India’s Narendra Modi had been honoured when he visited the island six years ago in March 2015. But, alas, the honour was hastily rescinded in the previous week when the Speaker of the House, Mr. Abeywardena, conveyed to the Foreign Ministry his reservations as to the prudence of Imran Khan visiting Parliament due to the prevailing COVID concerns.

Was it this snub that prompted Mr. Khan to flagrantly flout Lanka’s COVID protocol and stubbornly ignore the requisite face mask?  Did Lanka have to grin and bear behind its own face mask this diplomatic insolence since it was canvassing Pakistan’s support at the ongoing Geneva sessions which had the Lankan Government in the dock?

Buddhist monk to bat for Sri Lankan cricket

The significance of Navam Poya — which fell this Friday — a day on which Gautama the Buddha proclaimed the Code of Discipline which would thereafter govern the conduct of every disciple who entered the Noble Order of Bhikkus, may have been the last thing on Ven. Battaramulle Seelarathna Thera’s mind when he handed over his nomination papers on Wednesday to Sri Lanka Cricket to contest for its post of Vice President at the forthcoming elections scheduled to be held on 20 May.


The Ven. Thera’s explanation for his decision to depart from the Code of Discipline and engage in pursuits lying in the realm of the laity is that he is enamoured with Lankan cricket and wishes to uplift the welfare of its players, root out corruption and transform the squad to a match winning team again.

He says: ‘We love cricket very much. But today the game is completely ruined. We don’t want to play cricket. We need a better administration to stop fraud and corruption. If I come to power, I will not allow anyone to betray the game of cricket.’

Fortunately for his future deliverance from the bonds that bind one to samsara’s cycle, his unbecoming ambition to dabble in lay affairs was cut short. He was ruled run out for being out of his crease before a single ball was bowled. His nomination papers forwarded through the St. Anthony’s Sports Club of the Northern Province, was rejected on Thursday on the ground he had not satisfied the eligibility requirement to contest the post.

Perhaps, the Sasana Elders should help the straying monk return to the path the Buddha trod. And urge him to undertake a refresher course on the quintessence of the Dhamma the Buddha preached:

“Of things that proceed from cause; their cause the Tathagata has said; and also their cessation:  Thus teaches the great Samano.”

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