(Text of Editorial appearing in the “Daily FT”of 2 May 2023 under the heading “Undiplomatic Tragicomedy”)
Sri Lanka’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry made news last week for his most undiplomatic conduct in Parliament. In an exchange with Batticaloa District MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, the Foreign Minister resorted to unparliamentary language which had to be expunged from the Hansard. Sabry accused Shanakiyan of playing communal politics when the Tamil National Alliance MP raised an issue concerning the people of Batticaloa which according to Sabry is not a “Sri Lankan issue.”
Sabry, unlike Rasamanickam, is an unelected member of parliament who was appointed through the National List for the sole reason of being the personal lawyer of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He has no electorate to serve nor a mandate after the ouster of his political master. Even after his patron was chased from office through an island-wide mass uprising in July 2022, Sabry has managed to survive in ministerial office.
Having granted a degree of credibility to the otherwise purely ethno nationalist regime of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its only Muslim member of the Cabinet, Sabry soldiered through some of the most vile and racist decisions made by that administration.
The forced cremations of Muslim victims of the COVID-19 pandemic was one such decision that will go down in history as one of the most callous policies targeting a minority community. This even witnessed Rajapaksa requesting the government of neighbouring Maldives to bury the mortal remains of deceased Muslim citizens in that country and later mandating corpses to be transported to Oddamavadi in the Eastern Province under military escort for ritual burial. These communal burials were performed in a highly militarised environment with only two relatives allowed near the site. The ad hoc burial site did not even have basic amenities to serve grieving families.
Sri Lanka was the only country in the world to have forced cremations and banned burials. The policy was not based on any scientific evidence of a virus being spread through ground water after burial of human remains which an ordinary level science education would have taught since viruses need living cells for their own survival. Sabry was the Justice Minister when these atrocious policies were enacted particularly targeting the Muslim community.
At one point in time, Sabry did submit his resignation but refused by Gotabaya and remained with the then regime which persisted with forced cremations.
TNA MP Rasamanickam was one of the lone voices raised in parliament in solidarity with the Muslim community pleading with the State to refrain from such blatant discrimination. Though Sabry has now discovered his Sri Lankan identity, he was at the forefront of elevating the most divisive and majoritarian leader to the presidency. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused of war crimes, disappearances and killings of journalists and promoting extremist groups that unleashed violence against the Muslim community in 2012, was Sabry’s choice for President. As Rajapaksa’s personal lawyer, Sabry would have known or ought to have known the calibre of his leader and the dangers he posed to the country.
Now in a valiant attempt to rebrand himself Minister Sabry has endorsed the policies of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and hardly recalls his own role within the Gotabaya administration. However much Sabry may wish to forget, the Muslim community and the greater electorate must never forget the role played by Sabry and others of his ilk if there is any hope of never again falling victim to race baiting, opportunistic politicians present themselves as champions of unity.