By Ameer Ali –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power with two promises. One was economic to bring “splendour and prosperity” and the other was to get rid of all threats to country’s security. His alternate path to achieve the first turned out to be a highway for financial bankruptcy and economic pauperization and the evidence for it is everywhere to see. On the second, his attention turned to eradicate Islamic extremism aka Islamic terrorism, which in his view caused the Easter massacre in April 2018. True, that massacre was carried out by a bunch of Muslim lunatics, but whether they did it to create an Islamic state as ISIS tried and failed in Iraq and Syria or they were manipulated by someone or some group to enable GR to win his presidential contest is not clear. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, believes that there was a mastermind behind that carnage, and his suspicion is strengthened by GR’s refusal to publish the PCoI report submitted to him. To GR, Islamic terrorism like the war on terrorism for American Republicans and conservatives is “an exceptional euphemism that marked a boundless direful ambition” (Spencer Ackerman, Reign of Terror, 2021, p. 24).
As part of his grand standing on Islamic extremism, he banned in 2020 the Qatari Charity, a Non-Governmental Organization registered with the National Secretariat for NGO under number FL162614 and was functioning as part of the Qatari Embassy. GR’s recent volt face in withdrawing that ban exposes the baselessness of the original argument that it was functioning as conduit to promote Islamic terrorism in this country. It also shows the desperation of GR & Co. to appease Qatar to supply gas fuel to Sri Lanka’s smokeless kitchens. The fact that this reversal came at a time when a Sri Lankan delegation of ministers was sent to Qatar to negotiate a deal proves that the original reason for banning that organization was a canard and GR’s that his anti-terrorism posture is a hoax. There is also unconfirmed report that negotiations are underway with Abu Dhabi to take over all Sri Lankan petrol stations and manage them with petrol supplied by that country. Having ruined Arab relations with unfounded allegations about terrorism, GR regime is now hopelessly trying to mend fences. But, as long as this regime remains in power with GR at the driving seat the prospect of restoring friendly relations with Arab nations would be difficult.
Arab Muslims had demonstrated their benevolence to Sri Lanka in in so many ways over so many years without expecting anything in return. Theirs was assistance rendered on a country-to-country level without any strings attached. This was sadaqa in action, an Islamic concept which strictly means righteousness. A couple of examples should suffice to illustrate how the Arabs helped and how their projects were discontinued or sabotaged because of Sri Lankan governments pandering to the malicious demands of local Islamophobes. In 2006, soon after the tsunami, a memorandum was signed between Rajapaksa Government and Saudi Arabia to build 1000 houses for tsunami victims. The first lot of 500 was completed in the east and was formally handed over by the Saudi Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Those houses remain unoccupied until today allowing weeds, bushes, snakes and other creatures to invade, simply because of protests from Islamophobes and Buddhist demagogues not to allow Muslims to occupy them. Weren’t those Muslims citizens of this country?
Another example was a private scholarship scheme to benefit university undergraduates from poor families, sponsored by an Arab Muslim that came into operation in 1992. Thirty percent of that scheme was designed to benefit females and a further thirty percent to benefit non-Muslim students. That scholarship covered undergraduate studies in medicine, engineering, information technology and humanities. When the same demagogues and Islamophobes demanded investigation into that scheme and accused it as an instrument of Islamic brainwashing, the benefactor politely discontinued with it in 2020. Those poor families are now deprived of that invaluable assistance.
To come back to Qatari Charity, it was a sadaqa inspired benevolent organization aiming to help the poor and needy in several countries. Between 1993 and 2018 until Gotabaya proscribed it, a total of 14 million Qatari riyals, equivalent to roughly 1330 million rupees at the current rate of exchange, was said to have been spent in Sri Lanka on various projects. For a detailed account of its activities, see MedialK.com, September 24 2020. Not only this organization was banned but a number of fabricated cases were filed against local charitable organizations such as Save the Pearls which were run entirely on locally collected funds and devoted wholly on education and welfare of vagrant children from places like Mattakkuliya in Colombo. The controversial case against human rights lawyer, Hijaz Hisbullah, was also linked to Qatari Charity. How can this case continue any more when the ban has been lifted? Why are intelligence services still continuing to harass and keep incarcerated individuals charged under that allegation? Is the intelligence department operating independently outside the control of the President? If so under whose orders?
Under GR’s presidency and MR’s government not only the economy was mismanaged but the entire foreign policy regime had been a debacle. That debacle was particularly costly because of damaged relations between Arab countries and Sri Lanka. The saga over Qatari Charity is a glaring example of that debacle. Economic revival requires reparation of foreign policy, and that would be extremely difficult with GR & Co. continuing in their position. Even if the 21st Amendment were to be passed that would still leave, thanks to Ranil Wickremasinghe, sufficient clout for GR to dictate policy. THIS MAN HAS TO GO.
Economic stability and revival require IMF involvement but stability and revival could not be achieved solely by implementing IMF reforms. Even those reforms and recommendations appear to sound more burdensome and painful than what was thought originally, if one cares to read between lines the statements made by IMF delegates. Among Sri Lanka’s friends, Japan is reluctant to help after GR cancelling the rail project and unilaterally withdrawing the offer to allow India and Japan to build and operate the West Container Terminal in Colombo Harbour. China is unhappy about IMF debt restructuring program. Even India for that matter has warned of limitations to its generosity. Arab relations are in tatters. What is the alternative?
There is an urgent need not only for regime change but also for a radical overhaul of the ideology that designed the current political and economic system, which after seventy-four years had downgraded this country to become an international pariah. The young agitators demanding systemic change have understood this need. They are also aware that Sri Lanka is an island only geographically, and it cannot hide its state involved conspiracies, corruption and crimes from world outside anymore, because this is a digitalized age operating with networks. These youngsters feel disgusted at the way international organizations and institutions have condemned Sri Lankan performance, with the exception of cricket of course, especially during the last few years. The time has arrived now for political groups and parties with similar mindset and aspiration to come to an understanding and form an alliance with aragalaya, and convert that struggle into a national movement for systemic change. There is no other alternative to get rid of GR and his company. The country cannot wait for another two and a half years as the stopgap Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and protector of Rajapaksas conspires to achieve.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia