Hate speech and misinformation – Sri LankaBad science and the ban on Muslim burials
Sri Lanka is no stranger to the harmful consequences of misinformation. In the past decade alone, the spread of misinformation, both online and offline, has been the cause of multiple communal riots which have resulted in lives, homes, livelihoods and places of worship being destroyed. Minority communities have borne the brunt of these incidents, with no due justice being served. With the advent of COVID-19, misinformation has continued to wreak havoc, this time coupled with bad science, further entrenching discrimination against minority communities.
At first, the government of Sri Lanka appeared to respond well to the pandemic. The measures included a strict strategy of detecting cases, identifying close contacts, enforcing quarantines, travel restrictions, and isolating certain villages that showed an increase in positive cases. The military-led strategy, headed by the army commander who was appointed to lead the presidential COVID-19 task force, focused on minimizing human movement with a nationwide curfew implemented from 20 March 2020 that would continue for a period of three months.
But while these measures helped flatten the curve during the early part of the year, there were simultaneous shortcomings. For instance, the fact that military personnel were put in charge of almost every sector involved on the frontlines meant that decisions which should ideally have been made by qualified health professionals were instead being led by generals and strongmen. Furthermore, there was no safety net in place for low-income and informal workers who suddenly found themselves out of work during lockdown. These issues, however, would not be the only concerns but merely serve as stepping stones for even greater issues ahead, many of them stemming directly from the government itself.
Since the end of the 30-year civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority community, comprising some 10 per cent of the country’s population, has been subjected to routine Islamophobia by media outlets and exploited by nationalist politicians to garner votes. This had led to increased discrimination against Muslims, at times even spilling into violence: for example, a series of anti-Muslim attacks have taken place in recent years, including Aluthgama in 2014, Gintota in November 2017, Ampara in February 2018, Digana and Teldeniya in March 2018, and across much of the Northwestern Province in April and May 2019 following the Easter bombings. And now, during the pandemic, Islamophobic sentiments and actions have again been encouraged by those in power as a distraction from the economic and social fallout brought on by the government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
While anti-Muslim groups in Sri Lanka have frequently sought to stigmatize different elements associated with the community, from face coverings to halal meat, this time the focus has been on burial – a custom carried out by both Muslims and Christians, in contrast to the cremations practised by the country’s Buddhist majority. In April 2020, a gazette notification was released by the government mandating cremation as the only acceptable method of disposing of the remains of those who succumb to COVID-19. Despite World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines providing for burial as well as cremation, the authorities presented it as a public health risk. With this move, bad science partnered with religious prejudice to prevent Muslims and other minorities from practising this basic religious right – and contributed in the process to the notion that their practices somehow aided the spread of the virus.
This new regulation prompted immediate outrage among Muslims, Christians and human rights groups. The gazette notification was challenged via Fundamental Rights Applications by civil society as well as Muslim and Catholic families in the Supreme Court. The petitions demanded evidence for the claims about burials contaminating ground water. However, the Supreme Court refused to grant leave to proceed, thus effectively dismissing the petitions. Those protesting the ban, some of whom themselves had seen loved ones forcibly cremated, questioned why Sri Lanka was almost alone in the world in prohibiting burials in the name of public health. For many, it seemed that discrimination, rather than medical protocols, were guiding the government’s response.
This was further confirmed when the Ministry of Health, having commissioned an expert committee of microbiologists and virologists in December 2020 to revisit its policies, then simply ignored the panel’s findings that the bodies of COVID-19 victims could in fact be safely buried as well as cremated. Despite UN human rights experts again urging the Sri Lankan government in January 2021 to end its policy of forced cremation, citing that it ‘amounts to a human rights violation’, the controversial mandatory order to cremate would only be reversed in February 2021, almost a year on from the start of the pandemic. The move was reportedly motivated at least in part to ensure support from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) bloc ahead of a crucial vote at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.
By then, countless bodies had been cremated unnecessarily against the wishes of their families, including the widely publicized case of a 20-day old infant who was forcibly cremated in December 2020 despite the express objections of his grieving parents. And the government’s subsequent policy, announced at the beginning of March 2021 shortly after the ban on burial was reversed, was still deeply discriminatory: Muslims and Christians could now bury their dead, but only in a designated plot on the remote island of Iranathivu, some 300 kilometres from the capital Colombo. The move faced much opposition from locals in the area, with protests that ultimately forced the government to find alternative sites. The first two bodies were eventually buried in the Ottamavadi area in the eastern Batticaloa district after two Muslim-dominated local councils came forward to provide the burial site.
The government’s stigmatizing policies have also helped contribute to a surge in hate speech against Muslims and other minorities during the pandemic. Research by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, analysing some 103 incidents of published hate speech between March and June 2020, found that 30 per cent of the incidents targeted Christians while 58 per cent targeted Muslims, with burials included as one of the issues apparently driving the increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric. Despite hate speech laws being prevalent in the country, no action has been taken by authorities to protect minorities. It remains to be seen whether Sri Lanka’s vibrant, multicultural and ethnically diverse population can be brought together through a collective effort to manage the virus. The pandemic is a huge hurdle that can only be crossed if Sri Lankans from every caste and creed unite together.
Photo: Sri Lankan Muslims tie white ribbons on a fence at a cemetery during a protest against ‘forcible cremation’ of COVID-19 victims in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 23 December 2020. Credit: EPA-EFE/CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE.