MonitorsPublished on Dec 26, 2020
News and analyses from South Asia.
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII 51

Maldives: Discourse over burying Sri Lankan Covid dead turns Islamic

N. Sathiya Moorthy

At a time when Muslim brethren in neighbouring Sri Lanka continues to be agitated over their government’s decision not to let their Covid-19 dead buried, as is the religious custom, but only cremated, a public discourse is on in Maldives over the decision to let those Sri Lankan dead buried in the country. Going by media reports, a purported majority of Maldivian religious scholars are in favour of letting the Sri Lankan Covid dead buried in their country.

Trouble started in Sri Lanka when, in the early weeks of the pandemic, the nation’s health authorities reportedly advised the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to let the Covid dead of any community buried, as contaminants could pollute underground waters and cause further escalation on land. Not only Muslims and Christians but even a section of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community bury their dead, but there is no hard and fast rule among them, as is the case with the other two religious’ denominations.

The Sri Lankan government’s decision became a hotly-contested political issue after the World Health Organisation (WHO) cleared burial as a safe procedure for disposing of Covid dead. With the result, Islamic and Christian nations across the world have been burying their dead. But the Sri Lankan government is unbending. In the light of last year’s ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ involving some Muslim perpetrators, and the post-war Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ wanton attacks on Muslim establishments and places of worship, they see a state-sponsored design to marginalise the community even more.

Offering solace

The Maldivian discourse on burying the Sri Lankan Covid dead assumes significance in this context, considering that the archipelago-nation is exclusively a Sunni-Islam nation, as mandated by a democratic Constitution. Questions have been raised in both countries about the wisdom of the Sri Lankan government decision, despite the WHO clearance for burial, especially after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently declared that they would approve Covid vaccines on the island only after WHO approval.

In the context of their government’s perceived ‘double-talk’ on WHO approvals on Covid, Muslim community leaders in Sri Lanka apprehend further trouble for them all after the next round of decennial Census, pointing out how trouble for them started/revived after the post-war census, where their numbers had registered a substantial rise. Indications were that Muslims were inching towards becoming the nation’s second largest ethnicity after the Sinhala-Buddhists over the coming decades, if not already.

In a tweet announcing Maldives President Ibrahim Solih’s decision to let Sri Lankan Covid dead from the Muslim community buried in Maldives, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid said it was ‘based on the close long-standing bilateral ties… This assistance will also offer solace to our Sri Lankan Muslim brothers and sisters grieving over the burial of loved ones”. Earlier, former minister and leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Rauff Hakeem, submitted a memorandum to Umar Razzaq, the Maldivian High Commissioner in Colombo, outlining the “stance of the country’s Muslim community, which seeks to bring an end to discriminatory policies”. Hakeem highlighted how Sri Lanka was the only country to deny Islamic burials and how the decision was in “sharp contrast to the recommendations of the world’s leading scientific and medical communities”.

However, no Muslim politician in Sri Lanka had bothered to let the predecessor government, of which they were a part of, to publicise detailed census figures, which the post-war regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had held back.

Today, the Maldivian discourse, thus, centres around the immediate assistance that the nation could offer to their Muslim brothers across the Ocean, and the long-term consequences of the Sri Lankan government decisions viz a vis the island’s Muslim population.

Precarious locus standi

The Maldivian community is also equally aware of the precarious nature of their locus standi in the matter, especially vis a vis the nation’s greater dependence on Sri Lanka in economic terms, and otherwise too. Apart from the bilateral trade, on which the Maldivian economy and daily living depends, apart from the imports from India, many Maldivians have a second home in Sri Lanka. The links go back by century, and the people-to-people contact increased through the last century, especially after the tourism-centric Maldivian economic boom.

Many Maldivians have a second home in Colombo or elsewhere in Sri Lanka, especially for their children to get what tantamount to the best of school education in South Asia. It had begun with the Maldivian government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir -- who later became the President – who had directed the nation’s Trade Office in Colombo to play guardian to school children, sent for secular education in Anglicised school.

The scheme continued vigorously, at least until the archipelago’s government-run school increased in numbers and began adopting the British Cambridge scheme and curriculum, under successor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. However, the number of Maldivian families staying in Sri Lanka, and camping in south Indian cities of Bengaluru (Karnataka State) and Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) has only increased, as recently-affluent families became alive to the possibilities, and could also afford to maintain a business office and/or home there.

There is also a flip side to the Maldivian position on burying the Sri Lankan Covid dead, though unaired in public. Islam deems it a dishonour and sacrilege to put a knife on the dead. Hence, the bodies of Maldivian dead from accidents, murders and suicides are being air-lifted to Colombo, for the legally-required post mortem examination. For the same reason, an Indian education entrepreneur keen on opening a medical school on an uninhabited Maldivian island, for dollar-paying overseas students, with certain percentage reserved for locals, could not proceed in the matter.

Maldives also requires Sri Lankan assistance in terms of long-distance overseas travel, for both its leaders and common people. There is also a lot of cooperation between various law-enforcing agencies in the two countries, which needs to go on unhindered, in terms of curbing drug-smuggling across Oceans and nations, for which the two island-nations have become an international hub. At the height of the ‘ISIS war’ in Syria, then Maldivian government of jailed President Abdulla Yameen counted on Sri Lankan authorities to turn in misguided nationals who were smuggling themselves or others to the war-front, at times with their unsuspecting wife and infant children.

Islamic brotherhood

Participating in the social media debate on letting Sri Lankan Covid dead buried in Maldives, former President Gayoom, who is also an acknowledged religious scholar who studied theology in Al-Azhar University, Egypt, tweeted against the government decision. The government was not obligated to do so under religious tenets, he said in two tweets, adding that such a course would also ‘support mistreatment’ of Muslims in Sri Lanka.

From among other religious scholars who backed the government’s decision, the likes of Dr Mohamed Iyaz also cited assistance to “Sri Lankan Muslim brothers who are being ill-treated” in their country, as justification. “In my opinion, I think, it is an obligation of the Maldives as an Islamic nation to assist Sri Lankan Muslims,” Dr Iyaz said, as if to contesting President Gayoom’s opposition to the move.

Dr Iyaz said that “Maldives should assist Muslims everywhere around the globe”, and added that the move would also bring relief to the thousands of Maldivians living in Sri Lanka. Citing scriptures, he said “the best that can be done to forbid the cremation of Muslims, is by bringing their bodies to the Maldives and burying them according to the Shariah.”

Dr Iyaz did not mince words when he claimed, “If that (burial of Sri Lankan Muslims in Maldives) is not arranged, Maldivians would also be cremated under the power of the Buddhists of Sri Lanka…. In Sri Lanka, Muslims are cremated because the Buddhists have power over the Muslims.” It is thus in the best interest to prevent the cremation of bodies by moving the bodies of the deceased from one location to another, even if the custom states that the dead are to be buried as soon as possible, he added.

Taking what reads like a political position, Sheikh Ali Zaid, another religious scholar said that “some of the Opposition would point out the vileness of the government if they had not assisted the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Now that they are assisting, it is being disapproved.” Likewise, Sheikh Ilyas Hussain, another scholar, too, has backed the government decision.

For his part, Islamic Minister Dr. Ahmed Zahir said that the burial arrangement of Sri Lankan Muslims in the Maldives was a good deed and an important one at that. Other scholars too have also described the move which will go down as a benevolent page of the history books.

Tri-nation consequences

Independent of scholarly views and public sentiments in Maldives over burying the Sri Lankan Muslim Covid dead in their country, Colombo’s decision of the kind could have medium and long-term consequences for the future, in terms of collective security of the two nations. It could also involve their common Indian neighbour. Sri Lanka and Maldives especially have to be aware of and alive to the possibilities.

In the midst of the Sri Lankan controversy, the National Security Advisors (NSA) of the three nations met in Colombo to upgrade their ‘maritime security cooperation’ arrangement into one on ‘maritime and security cooperation’, and cleared a secretariat in Colombo to coordinate their initiatives and efforts. It is an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of security threats to the three nations and their shared seas, including those pertaining to internal security issues.

Threat of religious terrorism links all three of them, as has been the case in the past. In 2015, Malaysian investigators shared with their Indian counterparts a plot for three Maldivians to bomb the US and Israeli consulates in south India. In the previous year, security agencies in southern Tamil Nadu apprehended a Sri Lankan national before emplaning for Colombo, to meet with his Pakistani ISI handles, posted in the nation’s Colombo Embassy.

The involvement of Maldivian radicals in the ISIS war in Syria, with some of them dying for ‘the cause’ and Sri Lankan Muslims involved in what the government of the day said was a home-made act of ‘Easter blasts’, the stakes are too high for the Indian Ocean neighbours. In context, further provocation in Sri Lanka, which was earlier confined to Sinhala-Buddhist zealots but has since upgraded into what will be mischievously misinterpreted as a State-sponsored act, can have very serious consequences, not only for the island-nation, but also for the other two and their shared waters.

This could include avoidable future strains in bilateral and trilateral relations, as the possibility of involvement of religious terror groups from either of the other two nations cannot be ruled out, and yet with the victim-nation blaming or at least suspecting the other two of collusion. They have an example in the Sri Lankan Easter blasts, where a section of the nation’s political and strategic community pointed fingers at India, when the latter could be ‘blamed’ only for repeatedly alerting counterparts in Colombo about the impending catastrophe.

Country Reports


‘Sticky bomb’ kills official

Deputy governor of Kabul Mahboobullah Mohebi was killed in a bomb attack on his car as he was on his way to work. Security officials later claimed that Mahboobullah Mohebi had been killed by using the small, magnetic ‘sticky bomb’ that was placed on his car. No one has claimed responsibility as two of his security guards who were travelling with him were injured. At least 10 government officials have been targets of sticky bombs which are easily assembled and can be detonated remotely, and the Taliban has been blamed for them

US general meets Taliban

The US Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff, Genl Mark Milley met the Taliban representatives in Doha as the negotiations between Afghan government and the Taliban representatives took a break until early January to work on the agenda after the breakthrough of drafting the rules and procedures for the future negotiations. This is the first time the Joint Staff has publicly met the Taliban representatives. The meeting comes at the critical time when the violence on the ground remains high amidst the negotiations and US President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce the number of troops from 4500 to 2500 by mid-January.


Cross-border rail-link

At a virtual summit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi jointly inaugurated the cross-border railway link between Haldibari and Chilahati, making it the fifth railway link to be operational between the two countries. Also, following bilateral documents were signed during the meeting. The two sides also signed a number of agreements, including the Framework of Understanding (FOU) on Cooperation in Hydrocarbon Sector; Protocol on Trans-boundary Elephant Conservation, MOU regarding Indian Grant Assistance for Implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) through Local Bodies and other Public Sector Institutions, and the MoU between Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Memorial Museum, Dhaka, and the National Museum, New Delhi.

No division on religion: PM

Addressing the nation on the 49th ‘Bijoy Diwas’ or victory day, celebrating the final defeat of Pakistani armed forces in the Liberation War of 1971, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina observed that the people won’t allow anyone to create any division and anarchy in the name of religion. The Prime Minister also remembered the sacrifices made by millions of martyrs who gave their lives for the freedom of the country.


Back on track

The recently-concluded parliamentary session passed many crucial discussions and undertook debates on subjects ranging from Mines and Minerals Bill to Bills on Penal Code and the retirement age of civil servants. The Fiscal Incentives Bill of 2020 was also discussed. All in all, the session focused on getting the country back on track with pertinent and relevant topics.

For lean-season power

Delayed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the absence of labour, around 500 men are now being brought from Indi to complete the work on the Nikachhu hydro-power project, due for completion this year. This is one of the flagship projects of the country that will connect the Dam of MHPA to water from NHP’s trail-race tunnel, thereby generating more power during the lean season as well.


Political gains for BJP

Ahead of the State Assembly elections in West Bengal scheduled to be held next year, Suvendhu Adhikari, a prominent leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) switched over to the ruling BJP at the Centre, in the presence of visiting Union Home Minister, Amit Shah. Along with Adhikari, six sitting legislators of TMC and four leaders from the Left and the Congress party formally joined BJP in a mass rally in Shah’s presence.

Cong plans brain-storming

The principal opposition party, Indian National Congress (INC), held a meeting with its top leadership last week in order to devise plans to strengthen the party ahead of its organisational elections next year. The meeting was chaired by party president Sonia Gandhi. It was decided in the meeting that the party would conduct a ‘chintan shivir’ (brain-storming conclave) for the revival of the party. Former party chief Rahul Gandhi was present iatthe meeting was reported to have said that “he was willing to work for the party.”


Health officials blamed

The Opposition Progressive Coalition has warned that it will take legal action if it is not permitted to campaign for the upcoming local council elections , likely in March, in a fair and equal manner. PPM spokesperson Heena Waleed, in a new conference, criticised that government ministers were campaigning while travelling on official trips. She lamented the fact that the opposition were not permitted to do so, and lamented that health authorities had not even responded to their letters, adding, “Today, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) is seemingly the pillar that keeps the government from falling.”


Domestic flights restored

Domestic Terminal (T3) of Yangon International Airport has resumed domestic air connectivity starting with a handful of flights operated by the Myanmar National Airlines and Air KBZ. The resumption began on 16 December. In the Domestic Terminal (T3), YACL, the operator of YIA served one MNA flight and three Air KBZ flights with 164 passengers including inbound and outbound on the first day of resuming service, and then had another nine flights. The International Airport is strictly following the health and safety protocols following the ICAO’s Airport Public Health Contingency Plan (APHCP) and the Standard Operation Procedure – SOP (Version-2.1) recently issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports, Myanmar.

Border schools open

Schools in ethnic army-controlled areas near Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and China have been operating regularly throughout 2020, even as most schools in other towns and cities have remained closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In particular, the schools in territory controlled by the Mon ethnic armed group, as well as others in Kayin state and Tanintharyi region, are open since they believe that students and teachers are not at risk of infection.


PM meets rebels

The ruling party of the country, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), has been going through a rough patch, speculating break up. In this circumstances, Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli has been meeting with rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the Minister of Home Affairs and party’s secretary member, Ram Bahadur Thapa. Oli is said to be working on a conclusive solution to keep the party intact and ensuring his continuance in office. However, the controversial ordinance on the Constitutional Council, the root-cause of this divide, is still not resolved, and there seems to be no hope for any resolution either.

Is ‘BBIN MVA’ a reality again?

As India and Bangladesh recently concluded the execution of better sub-regional connectivity in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal), opportunity seems to be ripe for Nepal as well. From energy to connectivity and also the much controversial Motor Vehicles Agreement within the subregion surfacing once again, Nepal has been inducted as an important partner in the framework. If the structure works out as planned, it will be a great economic boost to the Himalayan nation, especially in these trying times when the economy is trying to revive back.


Foreign Minister visits UAE

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi who was on a two-day visit to United Arab Emirates (UAE), met his counterpart to discuss ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries. The visit took place after the UAE suspended visit visas for Pakistani nationals along with those of 11 other countries. Qureshi discussed the difficulties being faced by the Pakistani community in the UAE and emphasised the need for a resolution to the issue.

Lockdown in Rawalpindi

Lockdown has been imposed in nine localities in Rawalpindi after the number of Covid cases increased in the last two weeks. As per the smart lockdown policy, the district administration sealed only those particular streets and houses where there is a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in the last two weeks. The administration has assured that all essential services will be available but urged the people to not unnecessarily step out of the house for reducing the spread of the infection.

Sri Lanka

PC polls after Covid: PM

The government is contemplating holding the Provincial Council elections when the ground situation is conducive to go ahead with the polls, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said. “We cannot make predictions but remain optimistic of holding the elections when the coast is clear,” he said, in the context of the continuing Covid second phase. The situation should improve with necessary precautionary measures in place, he hoped. “It won’t be as bad as what it is now with the ongoing concerted effort to tackle the threat in time to come,” he added.

Import tax rolled back for Pak

The government has withdrawn a massive increase in domestic tax on Pakistani citrus from SLR 160 to 30 per kg, and it is likely to give a shot to exports from Pakistan. “This positive development will boost the confidence of Pakistani exporters as the citrus season has commenced and Sri Lanka is one of the leading markets for small mandarins produced in Pakistan,” a Pakistani official said in Islamabad. The tax roll-back comes at a time when Sri Lankans are learning to do without turmeric, a staple ingredient of their daily food, after the government declined to roll-back higher import tax on turmeric, leading to smuggling from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with early stocks all owed to rot in Colombo port, in the name of helping local farmers, increase their yield and capture the market – which does not happen overnight, however.



Opinion Pieces

Elliot Ackerman,’ The Afghan war is over. Did anyone notice it?’, The New York Times, 17 December 2020

Basir Qazizada, ‘Narrative of Life and Death’, Afghanistan Times, 16 December 2020


Afghanistan Times, ’Ideology of war, 15 December 2020

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, ‘Reduction in Violence and Women’s Rights - Two Significant Issues in the Talks’, 14 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Jyoti M Pathania and Shafqat Munir, “India-Bangladesh relations: Towards the next 50 years”, Prothom Alo, 17 October 2020

Rounaq Jahan, “Bangabandhu and the emergence of Bangladesh”, Prothom Alo, 16 Decmber 2020

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, “Modi-Hasina virtual summit celebrating the bond”,,17 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Dasho Karma Ura, “A Delightful Wonder, the 113th National Day Address,” Kuensel, 19 December 2020

Druk PhuensumTshogpa, “Opposition’s Assessment of Govt’s 2nd year in office,” The Bhutanese, 12 December 2020


Kuensel, “Reforming Government,” 19 December 2020 


Opinion Pieces

Manjit S Kang, “Govt must promote crop diversification by setting MSP for other crops as well”, The Indian Express, 19 December 2020

Christophe Jaffrelot and Vijey Ganesh RS, “If India has to meet climate change mitigation targets, it needs to take decisive action now”, The Indian Express, 19 December 2020

Gilles Verniers, Kiran Kumar Gowd and Surya Rao Sangem, “BJP’s backward classes strategy starts to pay dividends in South”, hindustantimes, 16 December 2020

Jaideep Hardikar, “The only option: farmers' protest”, The Telegraph, 15 December 2020

Adam Auerbach and Tariq Thachill, “How did slums survive during the lockdown?”, hindustantimes, 14 December 2020


The Hindu, “Battle for Bengal: On West Bengal-Home Ministry tussle”, 19 December 2020

The Hindu, “Excellence in diversity: On scrapping of reservation in IIT recruitment”, 17 December 2020

The Indian Express, “Divest and spend”, 16 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Jayanta Kalita, “Indian Militant Trained by Myanmar Rebels Gives Up the Struggle in Border Region”, The Irrawaddy, 18 December 2020

The Irrawaddy, “Will Myanmar’s Two Most Powerful Figures Strike a Grand Bargain?”, The Irrawaddy, 16 December 2020


The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar’s Purchase of Planes From Jordan a Sign of Things to Come”, 18 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Naresh Koirala, “The duel within the Nepal Communist Party,” The Kathmandu Post, 17 December 2020

Sujeev Shakya, “The business of foreign affairs,” The Kathmandu Post, 15 December 2020


The Himalayan Times, “Shortsighted,” 18 December 2020


Opinion Pieces

Afzal Ali Shigri, “Politics of police reform”, Dawn, 19 December 2020

Sana Farrukh, “Consular protection”, Dawn, 18 December 2020

Imran Jan, “Freedom vs equality”, The Express Tribune, 16 December 2020


The Express Tribune, “Women’s inheritance rights”, 19 December 2020

The Express Tribune, “Covax programme”, 18 December 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion pieces

Vijaya Kumar, “The LSSP, 85 years on”, The Island, 20 December 2020

Rajan Philips, “To burn or bury, the deadly question”, The Island, 20 December 2020

M S M Ayub, “Whither the UNP?”, Daily Mirror Online, 19 December 2020

Neville Ladduwahetty, “Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka”, The Island, 18 December 2020

Ameen Izzadeen, “Lanka’s grave problem: The solution is not in outsourcing it to Maldives”, Daily Mirror Online, 18 December 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Nation, not ‘nationalists’, decide”, Ceylon Today, 15 December 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “May it please Your Honour”, Colombo Gazette, 14 December 2020


Kelum Bandara, “World powers make non-aligned status almost unworkable: Pakistan High Commissioner”, Daily Mirror Online, 17 December 2020


Afghanistan: Ratnadeep Chakraborty

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan & Nepal: Sohini Nayak

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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