Sri Lanka reverses decision to bury COVID-19 victims on remote island after protests

A section of people from Iranaitivu island, located in the Gulf of Mannar within the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. Image by Ruki Fernando via Groundviews. Used under a content sharing agreement.

A section of people from Iranaitivu island, located in the Gulf of Mannar in northern Sri Lanka. Image by Ruki Fernando via Groundviews, used under a content-sharing agreement.

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:

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

Location of the Iranaitivu Island in Sri Lanka. Screenshot from Google Map.

Location of Iranaitivu Island in Sri Lanka. Screenshot from Google Maps.

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 villagers continued their protests even as the navy started digging the graves.

Mari tweeted:

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:

Human rights activist Ruki Fernando visited Iranaitivu on March 9 and tweeted:

Fernando also highlighted the withholding of basic infrastructure development on the island by successive governments in a photo story published in Groundviews.

The Holy Family Convent where the nuns resided is now in ruins. Image by Ruki Fernando via Groundviews. Used under a content sharing agreement.

The Holy Family Convent is now in ruins. Image by Ruki Fernando via Groundviews, used under a content-sharing agreement.

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:

There were numerous online and offline protests in the country demanding burials be allowed. Blogger Amalini De Sayrah tweeted about one such protest in December 2020.

After months of pressure from local and international communities and the U.N., the government reversed the controversial order on February 25. Amnesty International said in a statement:

“The decision (reversing the burial ban) is a testament to the tireless struggle of families of victims, activists, and members of the Muslim community.”

Over 500 people have died from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka so far, around 300 of whom were from minority communities.

1 comment

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.