Updated: April 17, 2022 4:20:31 pm
As Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister, Ali Sabry had to defend his government’s decision not to allow burial of Muslims who died of Covid. There was stiff criticism from the community, even his family, but he put aside his own religious beliefs to do this.
Now, the 51-year-old Sabry, a lawyer, is his country’s new Finance Minister, assigned the Herculean task of putting a derailed economy back on the rails.
He replaced Basil Rajapaksa who resigned earlier this month along with the rest of the cabinet — this was a move by Basil’s brothers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to appoint fresh faces in the hope of placating the angry people on the streets demanding that the ruling first family “go home”.
Hours after his surprise appointment, Sabry sent in his resignation, but the President did not accept it.
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In an interview with The Sunday Express at his law chambers in a quiet lane of Colombo’s Kollupitiya, Sabry said that despite his own reservations, he decided to continue in his new assignment as a national duty.
“I thought I am not an economist, I am not familiar with this area. So I thought somebody who is more suited would be ideal to do the job. That’s why I resigned. I waited three to four-five days, and in this crucial time, we appealed to anyone (to become the Finance Minister). But no one was coming forward. And then I thought at this given time, so many things are at stake, we need to protect the institutions, and we need somebody to govern. And talk to the IMF, talk to the Indian government, you need somebody to represent your country and your nation. So, with reluctance, I thought that I will take back my resignation, and do my level best,” he said.
He resigned because “there was a lot of pressure” from his family members not to accept the appointment. “Also, a lot of people were talking about whether I was the right fit for this job. At the beginning, I thought it better to offer the job to someone else who is better.”
But no one came forward. “This is not the time to just shy away from responsibility. You put your image and your personal glory and personal comfort on the side and do the job for the nation. It’s the nation’s call,” he said.
The task is unenviable. Sri Lanka has a crippling dollar shortage and cannot import many of the essential goods that it needs for people’s daily needs including milk, fuel, rice and medicines. As of April 12, the country had temporarily suspended repayment of all external debts, totalling about $51 billion. And it has appealed to Sri Lankans living abroad to send remittances home to help the country tide over the crisis.
“It is a difficult task, most challenging because Sri Lanka has never had this kind of economic crisis since independence. I understand the important thing is to prevent it from deteriorating further, at least to arrest it until some proper decisions are made. So we need to firefight immediately, protect the vulnerable here and then find a way for the balance of payment crisis until normalcy returns,” said Sabry, a friend of President Rajapaksa and, until recently, head of his personal legal team.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the country,” he said. “We need to protect the institutions, the central bank, banking system, its credibility, its association with payment gateways, friendly relationships with international multilateral organisations, foreign countries. These need to be protected and salvaged, at least for the time being.”
Being a lawyer, he said, what was helping him was his “skill to analyse and present a case and also to listen”.
Sabry, whose religious identity sits uneasily with some of the actions of this government, had resigned once before as Justice Minister over the appointment of a controversial Buddhist monk, affiliated to the extremist Buddhist group Bodhu Bala Sena, as head of a presidential task force constituted to study a proposal for “one country, one law”. The appointment raised concerns among Sri Lanka’s minorities. The monk, Galagodaatte Gnanasara, had been arrested for anti-Muslim violence, for a week, and was released on bail. He was convicted later for contempt of court, but received a Presidential pardon.
Rajapaksa refused to accept his resignation even at that time, and Sabry continued, after telling the media then that the matter was “in limbo”.
Asked about how he views his government’s position on minorities, he said, “I am working hard to restore order, restore stability, restore supply lines and protect the rest of the economy, and if we divide ourselves in terms of race, religion, or anything of that sort, it is going to be even more difficult. I hate any sort of division, wherever it comes from. This is not time for divisions, this is time for unity, this is time to put a strong united effort to protect our country.”
All over the world, and even in the most liberal Western democracies, he said, “some people will try to ignite differences among races and religions for their political survival. That’s been there since time immemorial, but the majority should understand that these are short-term divisive tactics that will not work. No country can progress unless you think as a country. There is no solution that is separate for each and every one of us. People should understand that.”
He said Sri Lanka needs bridge financing of $3-4 billion to tide over the next 6-9 months to pay its import bills. He said it was “too premature” to say if India was giving an additional $2 bn, but “the indications are positive” and “Indians have clearly indicated they will stand by Sri Lanka until it stands on its feet again, and normal life can commence… India had been a true friend in need”.
The next steps, Sabry said, in the medium-term priority, was to focus on the balance of payment crisis, and after that pursue a development agenda that will put the economy back on track.
“We need to be realistic, it has happened over a period of time, we have lived beyond our means,” he said, pointing to the several tax cuts implemented by President Rajapaksa. He said possible areas of fiscal consolidation were taxes, realistic prices for commodities.
“Every day, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation is incurring a loss of about a million. Some of the state-owned enterprises are continuing to make massive losses. Ultimately, that also has to be funded through public funding. So I think it’s time for us to reflect on what is right, and what is good in the long term for the country, and not take just popular decisions,” he said.
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