Colombo, April 18: Embattled Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday extended an olive branch to opposition parties and people who wanted him to step down over the economic mess he allegedly created. But he has firmly asserted that he will not stop giving in to extra-constitutional methods of impeachment, including the incessant protests outside his office in Colombo for the past ten days demanding his resignation.
In a statement, the president reiterated his call on the opposition to join him in solving the serious problems facing the country. He asked them to propose constitutional reforms that could help invigorate governance which, he acknowledged, is full of flaws. Indeed, at his request, a process of constitutional reform is underway.
For its part, the opposition is completely confused and disunited. While some want him to step down, others want the executive presidency abolished altogether. Yet others want the powers of the executive presidency to be reduced and the powers of parliament to be strengthened. The president did not indicate his preference in this regard in his statement, but he did invite suggestions for reform. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his elder brother, 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 find common ground from which they can speak or confront the president.
Admit his mistakes
However, to smooth the path to an understanding with the opposition and the protesters outside his office, the president acknowledged the mistakes his government had made.
In this regard, he mentioned the total ban on chemical fertilizers which hit farmers below the belt during the pandemic and created shortages of basic necessities. The president has since lifted the ban on chemical fertilizers. And the prime minister said farmers would continue to receive subsidies for chemical fertilizers.
The president admitted that his government should have sought IMF assistance much sooner. He pointed out that he had completely changed his finance team by having a new finance minister, a new central bank governor and a new finance secretary and that he had appointed three internationally renowned 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 recent days to restore the country’s economy. We have already informed creditors of our difficulty in repaying short-term foreign borrowings. As a result, a debt restructuring program has started,” the president said.
“We have received credit facilities from India for the import of fuel, pharmaceuticals and other essentials. In addition, the World Bank has offered to support the import of gas, fertilizers, powdered milk and pharmaceuticals,” he added.
The president warned that the government would have to make tough decisions now – decisions could not be made earlier for political reasons.
“We have a responsibility to steer the economy in the right direction at least now and to build a country that meets 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 we face today. This support can only be obtained if there is political stability in the country,” the president said.
He then added that he called on all political parties to unite for the good of the country. “They still have the opportunity to accept my invitation and work with us,” he said.
Young people addressed
Addressing the young protesters outside his office, he said: “Young people who must take the reins of the future of the country have full freedom to express their opinions, to organize demonstrations and to agitate today. . You know that I have granted freedom to lead protests and demonstrations for the past two and a half years. I took no action to disperse the demonstrators who came near my office. I believe the majority of these protesters are young people who really love their country. I also consider that they come 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 system of government to build the country, instead of destabilizing it. Therefore, I urge these young people not to allow opportunists to steer your democratic protests down a violent path. he said.
However, the police are worried about the continued demonstration by young people. Fort area police filed a report in local court on Monday saying the mass protest caused severe traffic congestion near the Galle Face Green area and disruption to pedestrians. Police also reported in court that unauthorized loudspeakers were causing noise pollution.
Advocacy for Constitutionalism
Indicating his determination to stay in power, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “Sixty-nine lakhs of people exercised their right to vote and entrusted me with the responsibility with great confidence. I am committed to meeting these expectations during my tenure. Therefore, I take the current crisis as an opportunity to bring about the change that people are waiting for. As president elected by the people, I have always acted within the framework of the Constitution and the framework of democracy.
“The legislative power of the country belongs to the Parliament. Therefore, there is an opportunity to discuss in Parliament the opinions expressed by the different political parties on the upcoming changes in the Constitution and to approve the necessary amendments. I stand ready to give my full support to Parliament at all times in this regard.”
“As a result, I pledge to abide by the supreme Constitution of the country and to make the necessary changes in the future and save the country from this crisis. I urge all of you to provide the necessary support in this regard,” the President said.
On Monday, the president appointed a new cabinet and ministers of state. There were no Rajapaksas other than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the new cabinet. Several former key cabinet ministers including Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Bandula Gunawardane, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Dullas Allahapperuma, Gamini Lokuge, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Keheliya Rambukwella were not included.
Among the former ministers included were Prasanna Ranatunga, Dilum Amunugama, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, Douglas Devananda and Dinesh Gunawardena. Ali Sabry and GL Peiris had been sworn in earlier. Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon has been appointed minister. MP Naseer Ahamed of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has been appointed Minister of Environment.
Ministers of State 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 were given Cabinet portfolios in the new government.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was absent during the swearing-in of the new cabinet of ministers, sparking speculation of a rift in the Rajapaksa camp. The prime minister was said to be unhappy with the exclusion of seniors from the new cabinet. However, he met the new cabinet in a separate meeting at his official residence.
More ministers are likely to be appointed as MPs move from the opposition, with the economic situation expected to improve in the coming weeks with help from India and the international community.