On March 2, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would allow the burial of COVID-19 victims from Muslim and Christian communities at one location—on the “thinly populated” island of Iranaitivu in the Gulf of Mannar, 300 km from the capital, Colombo.
This decision came after the country lifted an 11-month ban on the burial of COVID-19 victims, on February 26. The ban had been in place partly on the premise that burying those who had died from the disease might lead to contamination of the groundwater, but it went against religious practices of the Muslim and Christian minorities in the majority Buddhist country.
However, the islanders of Iranaitivu, home to around 360 families, protested against the government’s decision to use the island as a burial site, many claiming that this would create a division in the solidarity between the ethnic Tamil and Muslim communities — the government had ignored areas suggested by the Muslim community, choosing instead a Tamil area, that is still reeling from the effects of prolonged military occupation and the Sri Lankan Civil war.
Dr Kumaravadivel Guruparan, Former Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Jaffna tweeted in agreement:
Correct. The intention is to divide the new found solidarity between the Tamil and Muslim communities on the very same issue that brought them together. https://t.co/iLQDwOlLds
— K. Guruparan (@rkguruparan) March 2, 2021
On March 5, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda came out in support of the villagers saying that the Iranaitivu island was not suitable for the burial of COVID-19 victims. Three days later, he confirmed that the government had suspended the decision to bury victims of the disease on the tiny twin-island.
On March 8, government authorities stated that they were no longer considering Iranaitivu as a burial site and started burying COVID-19 victims at Oddamavadi, a town located in the Batticaloa district in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.
Why people in Iranaitivu protested
Iranaitivu (or Iranaitheevu) is a double island, and its north and south parts (Periyathivu and Sinnathivu) are joined by a small piece of land. During the 30-year long Sri Lankan Civil War (1982-2009), the island, mostly inhabited by a community of ethnic Tamil fishers, was within the area of military conflict. In 1992, a naval base was set up there and the islanders were relocated, forced to abandon their homes and cattle.
In April 2018, a predominantly female group of about 300 former islanders accompanied by Roman Catholic priests, fishers, local journalists and civil rights activists in a 40-strong fishing boat flotilla had arrived on Iranaitivu to re-establish residence there. But they were sent back by the navy. However, after a month, the government allowed the former inhabitants, even those without land titles, to stay. During the following years, the government and the navy began to rebuild some infrastructure for the population.
The locals raised several concerns in their protest against the decision to use the island as a COVID-19 burial site.
Citizen journalism portal Groundviews tweeted:
The people of #Iranaitivu appeal to the Govt to withdraw the decision to bury Covid-19 victims on the island. They state this would destroy the land which they rely on for cultivation & cattle breeding and raise concerns over transporting infected bodies 20km across the sea. #lka pic.twitter.com/B6YTkmOW8H
— Groundviews (@groundviews) March 3, 2021
The villagers continued their protests even as the navy started digging the graves.
Following the govt circular, Navy personnel dug new grave patches on #Iranaitivu island. The villagers landed on the island at midnight & rang the church bell in protest. They continue to stay in temporary huts without basic needs protesting Covid19 burials. #lka #srilanka pic.twitter.com/lopb1lkFgv
— Groundviews (@groundviews) March 5, 2021
Graves dug in #Iranaitivu by #lka #Navy to bury victims of COVID-19, are being closed up by local villagers today, in protest of the Govt. decision to bury COVID victims on the island. pic.twitter.com/LQd2cpZtyI
— Mari (@EmDeeS11) March 2, 2021
Journalists and activists were prevented from visiting the island amid the protests.
Ambika Satkunanathan, the former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, asked:
1) Why were journalists & civil society activist prevented form visiting Iranaitheevu? 2) What is legal basis upon which they were prevented? 3) How was Capital TV able to visit though other journalists were prevented from visiting? Watch video from 4.15 https://t.co/zo66Zr5fab https://t.co/G0b8qqlNpk
— Ambika Satkunanathan (@ambikasat) March 5, 2021
Human rights activist Ruki Fernando visited Iranaitivu on March 9 and tweeted:
Happy to visit #Iranaitheevu today & join residents in protest (day7) against using the island as a graveyard for COVID dead. “We will jump into holes dug to bury COVID dead bodies” said some women. They await official notification COVID dead will not be buried in the island pic.twitter.com/77lHz7eISr
— Ruki Fernando (@rukitweets) March 9, 2021
Fernando also highlighted the withholding of basic infrastructure development on the island by successive governments in a photo story published in Groundviews.
The ban on burials
Despite opposition from the Muslim community (10 per cent of the population), Sri Lanka amended the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance in April 2020, to make cremation compulsory for those dying from COVID-19. Some health officials cited the fear of groundwater contamination behind the decision. Leaders from the Muslim communities and the civil society pointed out that Islam prohibited cremation and the decision contravened the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on COVID-19 deaths which allowed both cremation and burials.
In January 2021, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch tweeted:
Sri Lanka's requirement to cremate anyone who dies from Covid-19 goes against public health guidelines and discriminates against the Muslim community, whose tradition requires burial. @WHO guidelines dispute the government's claim of a health threat. https://t.co/P20CyGtrka pic.twitter.com/I1vTtRYVu4
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) January 18, 2021
THREAD: Today a group of 30 people—masked and distancing as best as possible—tied white cloths on the gate of the Borella Kanatte crematorium, asking GoSL to #StopForcedCremations and in solidarity with Muslim families whose loved ones were forcibly cremated. #lka #srilanka pic.twitter.com/kOk8DI84hi
— Amalini (@Amaliniii) December 21, 2020
“The decision (reversing the burial ban) is a testament to the tireless struggle of families of victims, activists, and members of the Muslim community.”