By Ameer Ali –
“A smuggler is the only honest thief, because he steals from the government.”
Parliamentarian Ali Sabri Raheem of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), a breakaway party from Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), representing the constituency of Puttalam, was caught red handed a couple of weeks ago for rushing to smuggle into the country from Dubai, where he is said to have business interests, 3.5 kg of gold and dozens of hand phones without declaring them to customs authorities. He had used his VIP – why should MPs have VIP status is beyond bounds of democratic governance – to complete his golden adventure. It came to light later that this business politician had travelled six times since March this year to the same destination and flown away for the seventh time after being caught. Were his baggage checked on previous occasions is not known. But this time it was said to be a tip off from someone or some source that alerted customs. Perhaps that gold glittered too much this time to catch an officer’s eyes.
What is more shocking in this episode is that he had got away from the offence after paying a reduced fine of Rs.7.5 million instead of what should have been according to rules, Rs.22.5 million. Who issued the order for this reduction and why, is a mystery. However, the incident reveals a lot about how the system operates in Sri Lanka. The minister concerned claims that the fine imposed was the highest ever. The issue is not whether it was the highest or lowest, but whether the rule was applied fully. It is this discretion ministers have that allows room for corruption. The President who was in Japan at the time was reported to have ordered immediate installation of scanning devices in the VIP lounge also. Again, the question is whether the culprits the devices catch would face the full brunt of the law. Politics intervenes too much on these matters.
However, immediately after being nabbed by customs officers this parliamentarian had contacted government higher ups including the President’s office and appealed for intervention on his behalf to get him and the goods released. He would have thought that his record of support to the ruling mob would have worked in his favour. One should remember that he was one of those who voted to pass the 20th Amendment Bill brought by the Rajapaksa regime in 2020, and was rumoured at that time that he was among a few other Muslim parliamentarians who voted for that Bill after being promised cash or cabinet positions. Despite that, the same mob let him down this time. In revenge, the said MP voted against the government when a Bill to remove the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission was introduced. It now appears that opposition parties are wanting the removal of this MP from the legislature permanently.
Parliamentarians, and especially cabinet ministers, using VIP privileges to bring in taxable goods including luxury cars, and walking away without declaring them to customs or paying the tariffs due on the goods is nothing new in this country. Sometime they do it on behalf of their family or business friends and party supporters. So, why was this particular MP, a Muslim, caught but fined leniently and why is the opposition wanting his removal from the legislature are something to think about given the political environment which is edging towards a Presidential Election. It is the politics behind this event and the silence of the two Muslim parties and Muslim community’s so-called apex religious body, All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulema (ACJU) that raise serious concerns.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe having achieved a modicum of financial stability with the rupee appreciating against US$ and prices of some consumer items falling as a result, both of which may not last long, obviously wants to capitalize on that window of opportunity and go for a fresh mandate from the people. CBSL’s slashing of interest rate by 250 basis points adds further to this optimism. Yet, RW knows very well that the promised economic recovery is not going to come soon and without further burdens to bear by the community as a whole. Rupee appreciation is already hurting the country’s export sector and inflation is still high. CBSL’s recommendation to relax import restrictions without exports showing robust growth may add to inflationary pressure. Unless the whole nation is prepared to go through the IMF agenda in full, economic recovery is a fair distance away. This explains why top-ranking IMF staff are visiting in succession and engaging in discussions with opposition parties also to invite their cooperation. Its Deputy Managing Director is the latest of the visitors. IMF would wish to make Sri Lanka a successful show case. RW’s address to the nation on Friday reflects this situation.
In his effort to canvass people support he is also embarking on the very sensitive issue of ethnic reconciliation. It is in that context the politics behind the gold smuggling incident of a Muslim parliamentarian receives added focus. Historically, Muslims are politically identified with RW’s UNP even though SLMC and ACMC had made inroads into that identity during General Elections. In the forthcoming Presidential Election Muslim votes would be crucial to RW. By not intervening to save the MP concerned RW had shown that he is not going to tolerate corruption, which IMF wants to be eradicated. On the other hand, the leniency shown by the reduced fine should be considered as his gesture to the Muslims to prove that he is still a friend of that community. The silence of the two Muslim parties and ACJU on this shameful incident endorses their acceptance of the president’s dilemma. But that is not the case with those who want to oust this MP from the parliament permanently.
RW’s attempt at reconciliation will certainly inject fresh blood into the Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalist campaign. While all opposition parties except NPP are bereft of any substantially different economic program to offer as an alternative to IMF agenda, and therefore promoting in desperation the threat to democracy as the theme of a counter campaign to defeat RW, the ultranationalists within and outside those parties are preparing to raise their historic fear of threat to Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, were RW allowed to go ahead with his reconciliation plan. The SLPP, which is currently in bed with RW, is also not foreign to Buddhist ultranationalism and its 2020 election victory and that of its former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa were fought on that card with Muslims as the source of that threat after Tamils. The gold smuggling saga and the agitation to kick out that Muslim MP show signs of preparation to restart that dirty campaign. The recent controversy over Pastor Jerome Fernando, remanding of stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya for mocking religions, and the recent arrests of a couple of Madrasa staff from Puttalam in relation to the Easter bombing massacre, which, according to one Muslim political leader, seems to be a precursor to rearrest Hijaz Hisbullah, provide more ammunition to that campaign. The Anti-Terrorism Act, which is now put on the back burner, would soon be reintroduced to parliament and get passed to strengthen RW’s hands.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia