Colombo, April 18: The beleaguered Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on Monday held out an olive branch to the opposition parties and people wanting him to quit for the economic mess he has allegedly created. But he firmly stated that he will not quit yielding to extra-constitutional methods of removal, including the continuous demonstrations in front of his office in Colombo for the last ten days calling for his resignation.
In a statement, the President reiterated his call to the opposition to join him in solving the grave problems the country is facing. He asked them to suggest constitutional reforms that can help tone up governance which he admitted is replete with flaws. Indeed, at his instance, there is an on-going constitutional reform process.
On its part, the opposition is utterly confused and disunited. While some want him to quit, others want a total abolition of the Executive Presidency. Yet others want the powers of the Executive Presidency clipped and parliament’s powers strengthened. The President did not indicate his preference in this regard in his statement, but he invited suggestions for reform. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his elder brother, has also called for ideas on constitutional reforms.
Instead of speaking with one voice on this crucial issue, each opposition party is busy touting its own formula with no effort to reach common ground from where they can talk to, or take on, the President.
However, to smoothen the path to an understanding with the opposition and the demonstrators outside his office, the President admitted the mistakes that his government had made.
In this connection, he mentioned the total ban on chemical fertilizers which hit farmers below the belt during the pandemic, and created shortages of essentials. The President has since removed the ban on chemical fertilizers. And the Prime Minister has said that farmers would continue to get chemical fertilizer subsidies.
The President admitted that his government should have gone to the IMF for help much earlier. He pointed out that he has changed his financial team completely by having a new Finance Minister, a new Governor of the Central Bank, and a new Finance Secretary and has appointed three internationally known economists to help Sri Lanka negotiate with the IMF and other donors.
“Together with this group, we have taken a number of important decisions in the last few days to re-establish the country’s economy. We have already informed the creditors of our difficulty in repaying short-term foreign loans. Accordingly, a debt restructuring program has commenced,” the President said.
“We have received credit facilities from India for the importation of fuel, pharmaceuticals and other essential commodities. In addition, the World Bank has offered to support the import of gas, fertilizer, milk powder and pharmaceuticals,” he added.
The President warned that the government would have to take some tough decisions now – decisions could not be taken earlier for political reasons.
“We have a responsibility to steer the economy in the right direction at least now and build a country that fulfills the aspirations of our future generations. We need the support of international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund as well as friendly countries to overcome the serious challenge that we are facing today. That support can only be obtained if there is political stability in the country,” the President said.
He then added that he is inviting all political parties to unite for the betterment of the country. “They still have the opportunity to accept my invitation and work with us,” he assured.
Addressing the youthful demonstrators outside his office, he said: “The youths who are to take the reins of the future of the country have complete freedom to express their views, organize protests and agitate today. You are aware that I have granted freedom to conduct protests and demonstrations in the last two and a half years. I did not take any measure to disperse the protesters who arrived near my office. I believe that the majority of these protesters are young people who truly love their country. I also see their coming forward on behalf of the country as a positive sign for the future.”
“I believe that most people who love the country, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation, want to rectify the mistakes of the current governing system to build the country, instead of destabilizing the country. Therefore, I urge these young people not to allow opportunists to move your democratic protests towards a violent path.” he said.
However, the Police are uneasy over the continuous youth demonstration. The Fort area police filed a report in a local court on Monday saying that the mass protest has caused severe traffic congestion near the Galle Face Green area and disturbance to pedestrians. Police also reported to the court that unauthorised loudspeakers are causing noise pollution.
Plea for Constitutionalism
Indicating his resolve to stay on in office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: “Sixty-nine lakhs of people exercised their right to vote and handed over the responsibility to me with great confidence. I am committed to fulfilling those expectations during my tenure. Therefore, I take the current crisis as an opportunity to bring about the change that the people expect. As the President elected by the people, I have always acted within the Constitution and the framework of democracy.”
“The legislative power of the country lies with the Parliament. Therefore, there is an opportunity to discuss in Parliament the views expressed by various political parties on the upcoming changes in the Constitution and to approve the necessary amendments. I am ready to extend my full support to Parliament at any time in this regard.”
“Accordingly, I pledge to respect the supreme Constitution of the country and to make necessary changes in the future and to salvage the country from this crisis. I earnestly request all of you to extend the necessary support in this regard,” the President said.
On Monday, the President appointed new cabinet and State Ministers. There were no Rajapaksas other than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the new cabinet. Several key former cabinet ministers including Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Bandula Gunawardane, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Dullas Allahapperuma, Gamini Lokuge, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Keheliya Rambukwella were not included.
Among former ministers included were Prasanna Ranatunga, Dilum Amunugama, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, Douglas Devananda and Dinesh Gunawardena. Ali Sabry and G.L.Peiris had been sworn-in earlier. Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon was appointed as a minister. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) MP Naseer Ahamed was appointed Minister of Environment.
State Ministers Nalaka Godahewa,Channa Jayasumana,Kanchana Wijesekera,Thenuka Vidanagamage,Kanaka Herath, Vidura Wickramanayake, Janaka Wakkumbura, Shehan Semasinghe,Mohan Priyadarshana De Silva, Wimalaweera Dissanayake and Kanchana Wijesekera received Cabinet portfolios in the new government.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was absent at the swearin-in of the new cabinet of ministers, triggering speculation of a rift in the Rajapaksa camp. It was said that the Prime Minister was unhappy with the exclusion of seniors from the new cabinet. However, he met the new cabinet at a separate meeting at his official residence.
More ministers are likely to be appointed as and when MPs cross over from the opposition with the economic situation set to improve in the next few weeks thanks to the help being extended by India and the international community.