President calls for strong executive, guarantees democratic freedoms for all Sri Lankans

ECONOMYNEXT – Calling for a strong executive and legislature and an independent judiciary, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his first ever Independence Day address pledged to strengthen democracy and guarantee equal rights including free speech to all Sri Lankans.

“A strong executive, a legislature and an independent judiciary is essential for the well-being and advancement of any democratic society. If, for whatever reason, there is a loss of public confidence in any of these key institutions fundamental to the functioning of a country, that can give rise to anarchy within the country,” an official English translation of his speech in Sinhala quoted him as saying.

Even as he pledged democratic freedoms, Rajapaksa expressed hope that officials would not stand in the way of his commitment to fulfilling the needs of all citizens irrespective of their ethnic, religious or political differences.

“I am committed to working towards fulfilling the needs of the people of this country. That is my responsibility and my duty. I do not envisage public officials, lawmakers or the judiciary to impede my implementing this commitment. I not only respect your freedom, but I will work towards improving it and guarantee the political and economic freedom in a truly democratic country,” he said.

Marking an apparent shift in his attitude towards dissenting views, Rajapaksa said: “I wish to fully strengthen the freedom of people to think and to write freely. It is then that visionaries and quality works of art will be created. My government is always ready to tolerate and accommodate opposing views. The media has complete freedom today. We have ensured that everyone has the right to freely express themselves.”

The President further said a well-maintained balance of power between the three branches of government was essential for democracy to function the way it was intended.

“There needs to be a clear consensus on the responsibilities of the central government and decentralized authorities in the devolution of power. The responsibilities of the civilian and military establishments need to be clearly understood, and we must always remember that citizens have individual as well as collective rights. Coordination between the State and the public is integral to this,” he added.

Echoing sentiments expressed in his inaugural address to the nation on the day he took oaths as president, Rajapaksa said he was duty bound to serve all communities equally.

“In a democracy, when the leader is elected following a legitimate process, he becomes the President of all the people of the country. During his term of office, he must serve the entire Sri Lankan people. He is not bound to serve only the interests of the people who voted for him. I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community. As the President today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences,” he said.

He did, however, point to the state’s obligation to protect and foster Buddhism whilst ensuring religious freedom for all.

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“In the Buddhist philosophy, our leaders have always been advised to ensure a lawful, just and fair governance where no citizen is discriminated [against]. I am committed to protecting and nurturing the Buddhist philosophy of this country during my tenure,” he said.

This year’s Independence Day ceremony was also marred by a controversy surrounding a government decision to not sing the country’s national anthem in Tamil, departing from a practice begun in 2016.

Highlighting new challenges to governance, President Rajapaksa called for responsible use of social media.

“Social media can pose new challenges to democracy. Spending more time online, often with complete strangers, creates situations where people are misled by false information resulting in their swiftly believing the worst of those who bear different views,” he said.

“I request everyone to act in accordance with one’s conscience. Always think about the country. Think about your fellow citizens. Without thinking only about political requirements, think carefully about whether your actions and your words will benefit or harm the country. However, if your conscience tells you that the government is moving in the wrong direction, you always have a duty to point this out boldly,” he added.

Rajapaksa appealed for wide support for the efforts taken by his government to overcome challenges facing the country.

“Only the present generation can realize this hope on behalf of future generations. I request all Sri Lankans to join with us in accepting this responsibility that history has bestowed upon us. I wish you all a prosperous future,” he said. (Colombo/Feb04/2020)

Image credit: Nazly Ahmed

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