Sri Lanka: COOL debacle in the hands of fools and the Man who laughs last!

No minister in the cabinet has to do more with the implementation of One Country One Law concept than Ali Sabry.

by Rohana R. Wasala

Addressing a gathering of jurists in Sinhala at a function in Colombo, justice minister Ali Sabry said (December 12): “To me as minister for justice, and to us all as citizens of this country, people are the most important factor. It is because of them that this (legal) profession exists; judges sit because of them. Ultimately, the interest of the people must take priority over everything (else). I don’t think I will (Ali Sabry chuckled as he said this) seek to go to parliament again…. I state this without any fear.. I will revert to my preferred occupation, that of supporting the judiciary…. We know that some laws of this country have not been updated for over a hundred years. This task (of modernising outdated laws) is our key focus… Some thirty committees are engaged in this work (at present)….”. Then the minister talked about the perennial problem of law’s delays. He claimed that even the Mahanayake Thera, when he called on him, asked him to do something about the monks having to visit courts frequently (due to the slowness of court procedures): “We’ll introduce a small claims court as found in other countries; cases that involve less than (Rs) 2 million need no prolonged examination of evidence, except in special instances. A method for resolving these cases through an affidavit system will be put in place. This is to relieve pressure on the district courts”. (Explanations in parentheses are mine. I hope I have interpreted the minister’s meaning correctly. C.O.O.L in the title is a re-arranged acronym for One Country One Law) 

Mohamed Uvais Mohamed Ali Sabry, PC, and the current Minister of Justice in Sri Lanka 

The present ruling alliance, the SLPP, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sought election on the main platform of One Country One Law. However sincerely both reached out to the Tamil and Muslim minorities,and had never practiced discrimination against them in the past, the level of support expected from them was not forthcoming.This was due to the influence that certain communalist Tamil and Muslim politicians exercise over those minorities.  It was a fact that the two brothers came to power chiefly on the strength of the SLPP-ideology-inspired Sinhala votes. But, as could be expected, they assured the minorities that their interests would not be ignored in any way; they invited all of them to participate in nation building with the majority community. Steps were taken to ensure that Tamils and Muslims are fully represented in the administration. The key ministry of justice was given by the  president to national list MP Ali Sabry. No minister in the cabinet has to do more with the implementation of One Country One Law concept than Ali Sabry. 

Surprisingly, he is now talking as if he has forgotten that all important (at least purportedly so) goal of the government, for which it got the strongest ever electoral mandate. One may think that Ali Sabry is having the last laugh! He implies that even the monks, the most vehement advocates of One Country One Law, are now only complaining about the chronic problem of law’s delays, which, of course, is not a political issue! The One Country One Law ideal involves politics, as it is opposed by a minority of communal and religious extremists.

The appointment of a whistleblower Buddhist monk, who had earned a bad reputation due to his own lack of basic self-restraint and discipline (in spite of his cause being a genuine justifiable one), as head of a presidential task force is as questionable and as irrational as the president’s later appointment of a trade union leader monk as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo; but that is a different matter. Bracketing Ali Sabry with the controversial monk could not be accidental. Though the two are handling closely allied subjects, they are diametrically opposed to each other in their education, religious beliefs, and personal attributes. Probably they were coupled together to neutralize each other, or just to make a mockery of the One Country One Law project.

But extremists are a vanishing tribe nowadays, for there are signs that indicate that these communalists will go out of circulation by the time of the next elections, replaced by the emerging progressive younger generation of Tamil and Muslim politicians, just as the old guard politicians of the two major national parties will be ousted by an alliance of smaller patriotic parties and groups led by a refurbished JVP further strengthened by the return to its fold of its earlier stalwarts,and also accompanied by a rejuvenation of its leadership. The concluding paragraph of  an article of mine entitled “JVP at a crossroads” published in The Island Midweek Review on March 7, 2018 was as follows: “The JVP must take a long, hard look at its wasteful past and subject itself to serious reform as a party. It must get rid of its outdated ideologies and outmoded leaders. It must not condemn the voters as idiots for not voting for them. Most important, the JVPers must find political allies with whom they can coexist and serve the nation.”

(I would now use the term ‘save’ for ‘serve’ in the last sentence.)

I imagine that such a broad alliance will absorb emerging young political activists of all communities including Uvindu Wijeweera (son of JVP founder Rohana Wijeweera), Amith Weerasinghe, Dan Priyasad, Arun Siddhartan et al, and non-extremist ordinary young Muslim, and ex-Muslims such as Rishvin Ismath (who has fearlessly appeared on national TV channels, speaking against Islamists, risking his life for the sake of the country). Such a winning alliance must have the last laugh. The One Country One Law ideal must be left for them to realise.

That was a sort of anticipatory digression. Let me return to the Ali Sabry factor that is the subject of this piece. A retrospective survey is necessary at this point. About a year ago,

Media secretary Viraj Abeysinghe of the Ministry of Health issued a press statement warning against spreading false information allegedly concocted by certain politicians and websites regarding the subject of whether to bury or burn the bodies of persons who had succumbed to the COVID-19 infection (lankacnews-Sinhala/December 28, 2020). It notified that the Ministry was turning its attention to some ‘politically motivated fake news’ stories featuring powerful politicians connected with the government. The statement further said that for the time being (daenata) cremation alone was done on the instructions of all the expert reports received by the Ministry until then. Very much the same news was carried in Hiru TV News (9:55 pecember 27, 2020). We felt that this, despite the provisionality expressed by ‘daenata’, was signalling an end to needlesslym/D prolonged dilly-dallying on the part of the authorities about an issue where evidence-based science ought  to have had the last word.

Interviewed by two You Tube channels (Hari TV/Lahiru Mudalige/December 16 and Konara Vlogs/Avishka Konara/December 23, 2020) Ali Sabry PC, Minister of Justice, stressed that his struggle was to build bridges rather than walls between the communities. For over eight months by then he had been advocating burial of bodies of Muslims who had died of Covid-19, ignoring the decree of the competent authority, the DGHS (Director General of Health Services). The DGHS was acting on the advice of the local experts who knew best what was suitable for our country in the then existing context, i.e., cremation. The reputed lawyer was the legal consultant of (current president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa at least for fifteen years from the latter’s defence secretary days; he had successfully defended the latter against false charges of various kinds fabricated by political opponents. Sabry’s aim of establishing intercommunal harmony had been laudable, and he might be sincere in his efforts in that direction, but how sincere was yet to be demonstrated. This was because it was puzzling that he repeatedly warned that young Muslims were likely to be pushed towards extremism by what they’d perceive as a denial of their right to freedom of religion if the health authorities did not allow the burial of bodies of Muslims claimed by Covid-19. His totally nonsensical stand on the sensitive issue (that had to be left for science, but not religion, to resolve) was likely to give a fillip to extremists and other miscreants opposed to the government to create trouble. M.L.A,M. Hizbullah, State minister and later Eastern Provincial governor under the previous yahapalanaya, made a similar warning, which was not warranted by the then prevailing ground realities, not long before the 2019 April 21 Easter Sunday terror bombings by Islamists.

During the first interview mentioned above, Ali Sabry made the patently false claim that the Aluthgama and Digana incidents drove young Muslims to extremism, whereas the truth was the reverse of that, as borne out by evidence. (These incidents must be investigated even belatedly to discover the factual situation that then obtained. The disastrous policy of political correctness that led to the submergence of the truth on those occasions then seemed to be at work once again.) Sabry referred to how the UK responded to incidents of Islamic extremist violence as a model to follow in dealing with the same problem in Sri Lanka: the UK government reached out to the mainstream Muslim minority and acted to win their confidence and support in order to contain Islamic extremism in that country. That was a false analogy. He implied that Sri Lanka had to do the same (as if Sri Lanka has not been doing exactly that for centuries) or ‘we must kill all Muslims and put them into the sea!’ (The violent imagery in his speech was an indication of the commotion in his own mind resulting from his subliminal awareness of guilt as he felt compelled to lie in that situation for political expediency within his own community. His persistent advocacy of burial against the lawful directives of the DGHS revealed his anxiety to avoid displeasing pious Muslims who insisted on burying their dead as per strict Muslim funeral rites.) It was reported that he threatened to resign from his ministerial post on this issue, but that he was persuaded to stay on, which to the genuinely concerned sounded fishy, no doubt. 

Ali Sabry had been sounding the warning mentioned above (about possible unrest among Muslim youth over the ‘no burial only cremation’ problem since early April 2020. He apparently believed that he was undergoing a sort of public trial by being blamed by both the Muslim community on the one hand who felt aggrieved by the compulsory cremation rule imposed on all citizens by the health authorities for the safe disposal of bodies of Covid-19 victims and the numerically strong nationalist faction on the other led by the monks, who insisted] that the rule should not be relaxed to satisfy the whims of one particular group of people thereby endangering the lives of the whole population through the possible release of the still inadequately understood novel coronavirus from the interred bodies to the country’s water table, which, in many places in Sri Lanka, is not very deep, and lies close to the surface. The controversial Gnanasara Thera (who is now heading the presidential task mentioned) was an exception: he spoke up for Muslims who wanted to bury; the monk said that the Muslims’ demand for burial should be allowed. 

Ali Sabry should  know better than most that there has been no lack of reaching out to the mainstream Muslim minority either by the majority community or by the successive governments. Muslims as a community are mainly engaged in business. Seventy-five per cent of their customer base comprises Sinhalese, making it possible for Muslim businesses to thrive normally, though there’s been just condemnation, among the citizenry including the majority Sinhalese, of worsening Islamist extremism in recent years. Be that as it may, it is not simply because Sabry had served president Gotabaya in the past as his implicitly trusted personal legal service provider that he was made a national list MP by the SLPP and honoured and empowered with such a very important key portfolio. 

‘One country One law’ was the rallying cry that inspired patriotic Sri Lankans at both the presidential and parliamentary elections to vote for the SLPP, which won with the largest margins. As minister of justice Sabry has been entrusted with the task of supervising the making of a new constitution that is designed to achieve that epoch making change (namely, One Country, One Law) among other things. Gotabaya made no bones about the fact that he won the presidency almost exclusively on the strength of Sinhalese votes, as already hinted above; most Muslims and Tamils chose not to respond positively to his call for support at the presidential election. His bluntness was a reflection of his characteristic candour, which had then not been compromised by the hypocrisy of political correctness, his older brother’s blunt weapon, that fails more often than it succeeds.  But Gotabaya did not hold any grudge against those who rejected him, for in the same breath president elect Gotabaya said that he was elected as president of all the citizens of the country and that he would serve in that post without discriminating against any citizen. There is no doubt about the fact that he meant what he said. By appointing Ali Sabry to the powerful post of Minister of Justice, the president incidentally reassured the Muslims that he would not exclude them from his vision of prosperity and splendour for the nation. 

But Ali Sabry  did not budge an inch from his original unqualified opposition to the mandatory burning of bodies of Muslim victims of Covid-19 over which he expressed his disappointment in a Facebook post, something mentioned in an Al Jazeera news report/April 3, 2020, with the authorities’ decision which, he alleged, ignored the WHO guidelines that allow both burial and cremation. Were we to believe that our experts chose to overlook the WHO guidelines without a rational explanation? Sabry deliberately ignored the various reservations that clearly qualified the WHO guidelines, leaving the authorised specialists of any member country to modify those recommendations as appropriate for local conditions and ground realities. The basic assumption that he seemed to be operating on, regarding the burial problem, was wrong. For all intents and purposes, he pretended to wrongly believe that the health authorities insisted on making no exception for Muslim dead in this case because that was what the monks wanted.  Ali Sabry was the last person that rational people would expect to demand that Muslims should be allowed to bury their loved ones dead from the novel coronavirus while cremation was the only safe method ordered by the Director General of Health Services (DGHS). 

This is not a happy thing to say about arguably the most important and influential minister in the cabinet, being the closest companion of the president, next to the prime minister, who is the president’s own brother. It was inconceivable how Ali Sabry was capable of (no doubt unintentionally) justifying the berserk behaviour of some virus-infected Muslims (as seen in their show of insubordination, noncooperation, physical harassment of the health workers trying to help them including spitting at them (with the malicious intention of spreading the infection); cases were reported of some Covid-19 positive tested individuals spitting out of the windows of buses carrying them to quarantine centres in vicious attempts to spread dreaded infection). Such demonstration of unprovoked anger is based on the false pretext of alleged discrimination against them by the government in the matter of mandatory cremation of Corona dead as prescribed by the responsible health experts to prevent the escape of the deadly virus with many unknowns into the environment. The virus is no respecter of people’s religious sensitivities. If the Director General of Health determined that cremation was the only option for Sri Lanka in the prevailing emergency, all citizens were obliged to accept that and act accordingly.

Why didn’t Ali Sabry make an effort to explain to the agitating Muslims and to the misinformed Muslim world in general, who have never been enemies of Sri Lanka, that this blown-out-of-proportion controversy over the burial or cremation issue had nothing to do with the monks or the government or the health authorities or the army and police officers (the last mentioned having been co-opted into the Covid containment operation only as ancillary personnel employed for a strictly logistical purpose to serve under the DGHS, the government appointed competent authority, who gives leadership to the whole enterprise, which involves every single citizen of the country). 

The cremation imperative was not an arbitrary decision taken by the government to spite the Muslim minority under pressure from the monks as misleadingly suggested by the hostile foreign NGO elements, Islamists, a handful of misguided Muslims, and the irresponsible SJB-led opposition. The DGHS was not acting capriciously either; his recommendations were based on a scientific rationale collectively defined by a group of experts belonging to a number of different but relevant fields of study in the best interest of all resident Sri Lankans and foreign visitors. Ali Sabry seemed to be more concerned about remaining in the good books of the handful of Islamists and their sympathisers than about the feelings of the ninety-five per cent of the population who are against them. Was he in the thrall of the five percent? The fate of the goal of One Country One Law under Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice is not difficult to guess.

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