ECONOMYNEXT – Acknowledging certain shortcomings in the first two years of his tenure, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Sunday (10) reaffirmed a pledge to introduce a new constitution and a reformed electoral process in 2022.
Speaking at an event in Anuradhapura marking the 72nd anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army on Sunday (10), Rajapaksa said he will not make excuses for any displeasure the public may be feeling.
“The people elected me as the President of this country with high hopes. From the day I was elected, during the last two years we had to face such a situation that the world has never seen before in its history. We have been fighting for the last two years to control the COVID-19 pandemic. We were compelled to take various measures such as lockdowns and implementations of various restrictions to control the spread of this disease, these measures had a huge impact on our economy. But, I do not make any excuses,” an official English translation of Rajapaksa’s speech quoted him as saying.
“However, we have done a lot of work for the people under these circumstances. The people may have a sense of displeasure towards me and the government for not delivering as they expected. I accept that. Not only me but all ministers and MPs should accept it,” he said.
The Rajapaksa administration has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism from opposition parties, civil society and other actors of its handling of the economy and the COVID-19 epidemic. The backlash on social media over the past months has been particularly severe and increasingly derisive. On Rajapaksa’s watch, despite an exemplary vaccine rollout, Sri Lanka lost over 13,000 lives to COVID-19. According to a number of analysts, the economy is on the brink amid a crippling a forex shortage . Hours after his speech on Sunday, the price of a 12.5kg cylinder of liquid petroleum cooking gas shot up to 2,750 and 2,840 rupees, with the cost of living expected to skyrocket.
“However, I promise on behalf of the people that we will move the country forward with new vigor by controlling the COVID pandemic and by opening up the country under new normalcy. Everyone needs to work together for this purpose,” the president said.
In his speech, Rajapaksa thanked the military for its role in COVID-19 vaccination.
“It is because of your service that we have been able to become one of the top countries in the world in vaccination to control the COVID-19 pandemic. I will be grateful to everyone for that,” he said.
He also defended his decision to appoint retired military officers to positions of civil administration which had led to allegations of militarisation.
“The people expected me to end corruption. It was with that hope that I appointed military officers to senior positions in various departments. It’s a big challenge but we have to do it,” he said.
Rajapaksa expressed his wish to “eradicate corruption for the sake of the country.” Last week, a close relative of the president and her husband were named in the controversial Pandora papers. Even as top cabinet ministers claimed that no one in government has been implicated in the exposé, the president instructed the Bribery Commission to investigate the matter and submit a report within a month.
President Rajapaksa also defended his decision to ban chemical fertilizer in the face of strong protest from farmers.
“I was influenced to create a green agriculture using organic fertilizer because it was a promise that I made and also because that’s the right thing to do. That is what we must do for the people and for the future generation. It’s difficult. I always work with dedication towards the farming community, as about 75% of the population lives in rural areas. The livelihood of most of them is agriculture. Who has kidney disease? Who has various other diseases?”
Though non-communicable diseases were given as a reason for the chemical fertilizer ban, fertilizer import also costs over 300 million dollars a year for a country that’s been hit hard by foreign exchange shortages due to money printing.
An industry official told EconomyNext earlier this month that Sri Lanka’s ‘organic’ tea prices may have to rise 75 percent to offset a hit from the fertilizer ban which will drive up production costs and reduce yields.
President Rajapaksa, however, is steadfast in his plans to move away from chemical fertilizer and “embrace green agriculture on behalf of our future generation”.
“I was the one who made available free fertilizer to the farmer. I was the one who increased the guaranteed price of paddy to Rs 50. I want to increase the income of this majority of the people engaged in agriculture, the farming community, and provide them with better living standards. Place your trust in me. Let us fulfill this task together,” he said.
The president also spoke of terrorism and the need to prevent its recurrence.
“It is our paramount responsibility to ensure that there is no room for recurrence of terrorism in this country. We defeated the separatist terrorism. Now we need to stabilize the security thus achieved.
“We need to address the issues that caused terrorism. We should develop those provinces. It is necessary to raise the living standards of the people in those areas,” he said.
The international community has expressed scepticism of the Rajapaksa administration’s commitment to reconciliation and its sincerity in addressing human rights concerns. The continuation of a European trade concession worth over 500 million US dollars currently hangs in the balance over pending reforms to a controversial anti-terror law.
“Next one, the extremist religious terrorism, is a global phenomenon. We have to face it. We have to act in a way which will obstruct any room for such a thing in this country, it is not an attack on any religion, and it is a situation that we all and the entire world know today. We have to face it. We need to protect our country. I have promised it to the people. I am committed to fulfilling that promise,” the president said.
Last week, opposition MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake expressed fears of a scheme to whip up communal disharmony in Sri Lanka using seasonal extremist elements to distract the public from multiple crises the country is facing.
“As I was ascending the steps to worship the Ruwanwelisaya, a young monk told me that; ‘the President said ‘one country one law’ will be introduced and that we were waiting for it’. I will fulfil that promise within this year,” Rajapaksa said in his speech.
The government has been accused of discriminatory, unequal application of the law. A former MP convicted of murder received a presidential pardon in June this year, even as an outspoken opposition MP continues to languish in prison over a contempt charge. A government minister who was accused of threatening prisoners at gunpoint also walks free. (Colombo/Oct11/2021)