Tragedy and farce on a day of mourning

  • The government wanted Sri Lankans to mourn over the demise of an Islamic ultra-conservative nicknamed ‘Butcher of Tehran’

The death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman in the custody of Iran’s moral  police over charges of not properly covering up hair, unleashed  nationwide protests in Iran, followed by a brutal crackdown by a regime  devoid of semblance of legitimacy, until Iranian proxies, Hamas  momentarily shifted the global spotlight from Iran’s suppression of its  people by carrying out an industrial scale massacre in Israel on October  7 last year.

As the monsoonal rains are set to wreak havoc and a climate emergency is in the making, the government had other pressing priorities. It declared a day of national mourning over the death of Iranian President and Islamic hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, whose VIP chopper crashed during a trip from Azerbaijan.
Nicknamed ‘Butcher of Tehran’ for his role in the death commission in 1988, which executed thousands of political dissidents, Raisi is no angel. His victims were subjected to

Nicknamed ‘Butcher of Tehran’ for his role in the death commission in  1988, which executed thousands of political dissidents, Raisi is no  angel. 

sham trials of a mere three minutes before being sent to the gallows. He is loathed at home and abroad. In 2019, the United States sanctioned Raisi, who was then the head of Iran’s conservative-controlled Judiciary,  for “executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations”.
Raisi was a close confidante of  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and was considered a successor to Khamenei. His rise to the presidency was made possible in a deeply contested election in which the country’s Mullah-run Guardian Council disqualified the majority of reformist candidates. 

Since his election, which coincided with conservative hardliners consolidating control across all institutions of the country, the Iranian regime has grown exceedingly brutal, massacring protestors and herding unveiled women to prisons. The death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman in the custody of Iran’s moral police over charges of not properly covering up hair, unleashed nationwide protests in Iran, followed by a brutal crackdown by a regime devoid of semblance of legitimacy, until Iranian proxies, Hamas momentarily shifted the global spotlight from Iran’s suppression of its people by carrying out an industrial scale massacre in Israel on October 7 last year.
Iran is a citadel of a great human civilization, and its people keep much of that human spirit alive despite the suffocating grip of Mullahs: most opinion polls cite Iranians as still the least anti-semitic in the Middle East and most liberally inclined. 

Tinpot despot 

Intriguingly, when Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen- a country which had turned into a humanitarian nightmare due to a proxy war Iran waged against its Sunni opponents, Saudi Arabia and UAE- fired missiles at the ships crossing the Red Sea, President Ranil Wickremesinghe jumped the bandwagon and sent a ship to defend sea lines of communication. Now, his government forces the Sri Lankans to mourn over the death of a tinpot despot who had taken his own people hostage.
Be it curry favouring a global pariah or Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘balanced diplomacy’ as his acolytes would call it, this is utter stupidity. If nothing else, this comes at a huge reputational cost for Sri Lanka. But, any Sri Lankan with the slightest idea of Sri Lanka’s demography, which can easily be turned poisonous, has reasons to worry where such pandering in exchange for petty electoral advantage at home would lead in the medium to long term.

Selective empathy

Also nauseating is the grotesque display of selective empathy. If there was any incident in recent times that the government of Sri Lanka would legitimately want its people to mourn over, that was the Hamas massacre on October 7. That is a tragedy that the majority of Sri Lankans themselves, who have been suicide bombed and massacred on border villages for three decades by a nihilistic terrorist group, could relate to and have the utmost empathy.
But, the government of Sri Lanka did not declare a day of mourning. Nelum Pokuna was not lightened with Israeli colours. Instead, after dillydallying on unequivocally condemning the Hamas brutality, it went to vote against a UN resolution that condemned Hamas for the October 7th barbarism, which killed 1400 Israelis and foreign workers, including two Sri Lankan caregivers.
Such duplicity effectively forfeits the moral right to condemn what followed after October 7th, when Israel unleashed disproportionate and indiscriminate force, which had now killed 34,000 people, the vast majority of children and women.

Foreign policy of the warped mind

Usual foreign policy pundits of Sri Lanka pride themselves on a foreign policy of non-alignment. But in practice, the foreign policy of this country since the independence has been at the mercy of the whims and fancies of political leaders, who have either tried to build non-existent stature in the global talk shops or to appease certain constituencies at home.
This is not unique to Sri Lanka. There is a long list of Third World leaders who played the statesmen in the global arena while their people lived hand to mouth, living off foreign aid. This is also an interesting case where theory and practice collide in international politics, where the realists, the dominant school of thought, argue that small states exist at the mercy of the great powers in the international system of anarchy because the power is the source of survival.
“The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must,” Thucydides wrote in the History of Peloponnesian War some 2500 years ago, still the founding test of realism.
But, in practice, the norm-based international order that evolved after World War II had garnered a greater allowance for the smaller states, and their survival in the system is given, without which the norm-based order itself would collapse.
This latitude is used by the leaders of the small states, who, except for a few, are showmen and charlatans, to cultivate, in often flopped attempts, bigger than the life image that does not correspondent to the relative power of their states or the general wellbeing of their people. If one is to have a cursory glance at the shift of Sri Lankan foreign policy between the capitalist and socialist camps during the Cold War and later between China and the West, one would find  hardly any significant external shocks that guided such a shift. Instead, they were guided by the personal political ambitions of local leaders, who thought sucking up to one at the expense of the other would serve their interest.
Now, the latest pandering to Mullahs of Iran by this government is not necessarily a foreign policy decision in its primary calculation, though it would certainly have foreign policy consequences. It is a decision guided by petty electoral consideration of the up-and-coming presidential election.

Who is the government catering to?

Iran is the global power of Shia Islam. There is a 14-century-old schism between Shia and Sunni Islam, which superseded religion and took geopolitical connotations as the Middle East got richer with petrodollars. Iran and Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni power, have been at loggerheads since the Iranian revolution, though the two countries have mended ties in recent times. The overwhelming majority of Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunnis. However, Shia Iran has a unique sway in some quarters of educated, politically active and influential circles of the Muslim community and Muslim political parties in Sri Lanka. As he plans for the presidential election, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is wooing these parties and elite circles who he thinks could swing Muslim votes in his favour. Thus, a bit of patronage is extended. Last week, he announced a grant of 25 million rupees to build a memorial museum for late Muslim Congress Leader M.H.M Ashraff in Kalmunai. The family of the late Ashraff has publicly distanced themselves from the presidential donation.
Making the Sri Lankans mourn over a dead Iranian conservative is another gesture aimed at these circles. 
His electoral calculations notwithstanding, this is an affront to Sri Lankan Muslims, who he thinks can be bought over by importing a global conflict into our midst. More than anyone else, Muslims suffered due to the fallout after a previous government let Wahabis and Salafis expand their tentacles, exactly driven by the same electoral motives. This is also an insult to the vast majority of Iranian people, who want to elect a normal and civilized government free of suffocating political Islam.
This is also a very dangerous gamble that places the vast majority of Sri Lankans in danger, considering the very real potential of radicalization and ethnic polarization. 
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