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Posted in Asian News
August 3, 2022

Sri Lankan President unveils plan to involve citizens in policy making

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, August 3 (newsin.asia): In his inaugural speech in the Sri Lankan parliament on Wednesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced his political and economic plans to retrieve the island nation from the depths of despair.

The President’s comprehensive plan includes the formation of an all-party government, a National Assembly and a People’s Assembly to deliberate and advise the government on policies. The constitution will be amended to curb the President’s powers while increasing the parliament’s powers. The National Assembly will be composed of all parties and the People’s Assembly will be composed of citizens from various sectors, including the youth. The elected parliament will, of course, continue to be the sole law-making body as per the constitution.

The President’s plan includes reform of Public Sector Enterprises and  also envisages an openness to foreign investment to boost the sluggish economy. The President said that aggrieved parties and groups (called “protesters”) will be free to hold protests and assured them that they will be protected by the State. However, he made it clear that there will be no toleration of violent elements.

All Party Government

On an All-party government, he said: “The expectation of all the citizens of the country at this juncture is for all their representatives in the Parliament to work together in order to build the country. If we come together, we will be able to invigorate the nation. If we divide, it will not only harm the people’s representatives but the entire nation. Therefore, I once again request all parties representing the people in this Parliament to unite in the formation of an All-Party Government. I respectfully extend the hand of friendship to all of you. I confidently invite you to put aside the past and come together for the sake of the country. I have already initiated discussions with political parties about forming an All-Party Government. I wish to reiterate to this House, the importance of an All-Party Government in order to resolve this crisis and establish stability in an expeditious manner.”

National Assembly

The President said that he is working to establish a National Assembly consisting of political party leaders. The first task of the National Assembly will be to arrive at a Common Minimum Program, he said. The goal of the Assembly will be to build Sri Lankan unity without animosities based on ethnic and religious differences, he added.

“Ever since I entered into politics, I wanted to create a society with a Sri Lankan identity without these divisions. To create a nation, where children of one mother can live in harmony. I suffered political defeats due to regular engagement in this exercise. It was criticized by extremists, because of my continued stand against racism and bigotry, some political parties slandered me as a racist. However, I did not deviate from my principle. I will not deviate from that policy.”

“Today, the majority of the youth have accepted that they want to continue my policies. They chant slogans against racism and bigotry. Protests are being carried out mentioning the necessity of peace among ethnic groups of Sinhala – Tamil – Muslim – Burgher etc. Sinhalese youths say that all the ethnic groups including Tamils and Muslims should be treated equally. I am glad that the young generation understands the truth that I tried to explain to this society for about five decades.”

“Now we have the opportunity to direct the entire country towards that policy with the collaboration of these youths. Space has been created to eliminate all kind of disunity in race, religion, party, caste etc. Opportunity has been granted to end the sufferings faced by some community due to this disunity. Space has been arranged to ensure the basis of determining the advancement of an individual on talent and ability. The background has been created for an environment where every citizen can live in freedom,” Wickremesinghe said.

People’s Assembly

On forming a People’s Assembly, the President said: “A comprehensive series of political reforms are required to implement all these functions. I will carry out those reforms during my tenure. However, not based on my own opinion, but with the consent of the Parliament based on the views of the youth, women and other people. I am taking measures to establish a People’s Assembly in order to decide which social and political reforms should be implemented.”

“A mechanism to obtain views of all interested parties is being prepared through the People’s Assembly through the consultation of political parties, various organizations etc. I specially invite the youth engaged in activism and youth who are not to provide their views.”

“All matters such as ‘Should we continue to maintain the presidential system in our country? Which system is most appropriate for the country? How should the government system be reformed?’ should be discussed by the People’s Assembly, and ideas requested. After reaching a national consensus on the system that suits the country, it may be legalized and implemented.”

“It is essential to reach such a national consensus. The major commitment presented during the Presidential election campaigns in our country is the abolition of the executive presidential system. However, no one who came to power delivered on that commitment. On the other hand, even if someone abolishes the Executive Presidential system, the next party that comes to power has the ability to change it. That is the reason we require to reach a common national consensus through a body such as the People’s Assembly.”

“The People’s Assembly is a fully independent body with the Government only providing the necessary resources. The Government has no influence on its functions or decisions. We decide in consultation with various parties, regarding the composition of the People’s Assembly. Views and proposals in this regard have already been made by the National Movement for Social Justice.”

“The People’s Assembly may seek from the nations in our neighborhood and the wider Asian region together with the relevant international agencies their expertise in the respective areas.

“The responsibility of preparing a National Plan for social, economic and political reforms is assigned to the People’s Assembly, by taking the opinions and advice of all stakeholders and acting with full transparency. The Assembly may wish to prepare this plan.”

Economic Reform

On the crucial question of economic reform, the President said: “Due to the collapse of the economy, our country also suffered a political crisis. Why did our economy collapse in this manner? We have been debating for two or three decades on how our economic system should be. In 1977, a new economic regime was introduced to our country. However, we failed to modernize and adjust with time. Without focusing on the modernization of the economy, we were engaged in competitive, short-sighted, and destructive narrow politics. Unfavorable international economic factors brought about by the Ukraine war and the collapse of the world’s major economies due to the COVID pandemic exacerbated and complicated our crisis.”

“Due to all these reasons, our country totally declined. The people have been suffering severe hardship. We have now initiated the process of revitalization. We have now minimized power cuts; we are in the process of bringing the fertilizer required for cultivation. There is no shortage of gas, and soon everyone would be able to obtain it without queuing. Safety measures have been taken to avoid food shortages. Bringing essential drugs and medical equipment to the hospitals has been initiated. Schools have been re-opened. Measures are being taken to overcome the impediments faced by the industries and export sectors.”

India’s Help

Turning to India’s economic help when Sri Lanka was down and out, the President said: “I wish to specially mention the assistance provided by India, our closest neighbor, in our efforts to economic revitalization. The Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given us a breath of life. On behalf of my people and that of my own, I convey our gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the Government, and the people of India.”

Furthermore on the economic situation the President said: “Presently, the immediate requirement before us is fuel. While appreciating the international assistance in addressing the fuel shortage, it is time that we now initiate a system for such importation from our own export income and foreign remittances. We also have to limit selected imports in order to balance the payments for fuel. On the other hand, the fuel supply has to be curtailed. These hardships would need to be borne until the end of this year.”

“Due to the economic crisis, we are facing various difficulties. I look forward to the support of the nation to rid the country of these troubles. We need to move towards long-term solutions in order to overcome these difficulties. A strong foundation needs to be laid so as not to repeat this kind of economic crisis in our country. The economy should be modernized. Economic stability should be established and transformed into a competitive export economy. In this context, we are now preparing the necessary reports, plans, rules and regulations, laws, and programs.”

Planning for Future

On the planning framework for the future, the President said that a plan will be presented through the Interim Budget and the 2023 Budget to be presented to the Parliament.

“ As a preliminary step, we initiated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a four year programme. We would continue those discussions from this month. It is our expectation to conclude the staff level negotiations expeditiously and successfully.”

“The finalization of the debt restructuring plan has commenced in collaboration with Lazard and Clifford Chance, who are international financial and legal experts. We would submit this plan to the International  Monetary Fund in the near future, and negotiate with the countries who provided loan assistance. Subsequently negotiations with private creditors would also begin to arrive at a consensus.”

“We are also looking at formulating necessary policies, rules and regulations, and programs, to strengthen the export economy. Our economic legacy is based on foreign trade. From the ancient times, Sri Lanka was known worldwide as a major economic hub located on the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), and was identified as the ‘Granary of the East’. Sri Lanka was the center that distributed rice from the entire region across the world.”

“Our ultimate goal is to re-establish that past legacy to create a strong and developed green economy. It has been recognized that climate change is a monumental issue facing the future world. We need to create a strong economy that can address climate change. As King Maha Parakramabahu said, we should ensure that we do not waste even a single drop of water that falls from the sky,” the President said.  

Income Disparities

On growing income disparities, the President said: “As a result of the economic crisis we are facing today, the income disparity in society is widening. The middle class is shrinking. On the other hand, businesses and industries are facing serious challenges, exacerbated by the loss of employment.”

“The amount of remittances sent by migrant workers to Sri Lanka has dropped, for several reasons. With the COVID epidemic, much employment was terminated, and people’s travel abroad for jobs became limited. Due to the artificial control of the rupee, it became more advantageous to transfer money to Sri Lanka through other means. Presently, this situation is gradually changing, and we are taking measures to encourage remittances to Sri Lanka through the banking system. Tourists mostly come from the month of August. Necessary initiatives are being taken to attract more tourists to Sri Lanka.”

Freehold Deeds

The President said that freehold deeds are being granted to government licensed landholders. Ownership of the houses are granted to those who are living in government housing schemes. Programs are being implemented to solve the issues of the upcountry Tamil Sri Lankan community.”

“In the effort of stabilizing the economy, we pay close attention towards the less privileged of the society. Avenues for the entrepreneurs of the country to come forward through their skills are being expanded.I am committed to making effective changes for the future of society. The foundation is being prepared to rekindle the middle class. Benefits are distributed fairly to the entire society, through a social market economy. I am taking measures to establish a Social Justice Commission for this purpose.”

State Enterprises Reform

State Enterprises need to be reformed, the President said. “ Four or five decades ago, there was an economic concept of state enterprise. However, it is now widely accepted that this concept is ineffective. Even former socialist countries now encourage private enterprises. If our country continues to nurture state-owned loss-making enterprises the country will take a further downturn. Therefore, we have to make policy decisions on getting rid of such enterprises.”

“However, I am of the view that, before the end of the 21st century, the Indo-Pacific Region will be the most powerful economic domain in the world. In this context, the strategic geographical location of our country is extremely important. We should make best use of this favorable position. Bearing this in mind, our future corporate laws and policies should be formulated.”

Less Loans, More Investment

Stressing the need for taking less loans and getting more investments, Wickremesinghe said: “A country cannot be sustained by taking loans, and therefore should reduce the borrowings to the extent possible. Therefore, I am joining with you Hon. MPs in compiling rules and regulations and policies that will allow our country to get maximum benefit from the Indian Ocean centric new economic power.”

“I urge all parties to get rid of traditional thinking in striving to build the Sri Lankan nation. Some groups stand idle while taking commercial loans at high interest rates and oppose investments that are beneficial to the country.”

Shedding Needless Opposition

Calling upon parties to shed needless opposition to foreign investment, the President said: “The enormous loss caused to our country due to the opposition to foreign investments because of here say, without checking, cannot be qualified. However, people are aware of the losses caused to the country due to corruption and fraud.

He then mentioned a few examples: “When we tried to develop the oil tank complex in Trincomalee together with India, it was stated that Sri Lanka would be a sell out of to India and this development project was halted. If at that time we were allowed to develop the oil tank complex, today people would not have to spend many days in queues for fuel.””

Even when the ‘Suvasarya’ ambulance service was initiated, a similar objection was raised. Some doctors held press conferences stating that ‘if the patient comes to the hospital by the ‘Suvasariya’ ambulance service, deaths will occur’. However we somehow initiated the ‘Suvasariya’ service and thereby thousands of lives have been saved.”

“When Japan offered to establish the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and develop the Container Terminal in the port, it was opposed by giving a number of baseless reasons. Therefore, our country lost more than 03 billion dollars in investments. Regrettably the traditional friendship between Japan and Sri Lanka has been adversely affected.”

“The Hon. late Shinsho Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, who was a close friend of Sri Lanka, took the initiative to offer us these projects. Sadly he was killed recently. At this moment, I wish to transfer merit to Hon. Abe, according to our religious beliefs.”

“In order to strengthen our journey towards a developmental economy, we should examine the past. Why did our economy fall into such a low level? Why did we inherit negative results? Was it due to mistakes made by individuals? Or due to policy deficiencies? How were individuals allowed to manipulate the economy as they wished? Can the economic policy of a country vary from person to person? Is it favorable for the country or else harmful to change policies from time to time?”

National Economic Policy

The President said that a National Economic Policy for the next 25 years is being planned. “It lays the foundation for a social market economic system, securing development for the poor and underprivileged groups and encouraging small and medium entrepreneurs. Our aim is to create a surplus in the primary budget by the year 2025. Our effort is to raise the economic growth rate to a stable stage, in order to establish a solid economic foundation by the year 2026. Currently, public debt is 140 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Our plan is to bring this down to less than 100% by the year 2032.”

“If we build the country, the nation and the economy through the national economic policy, we would be able to become a fully developed country by the year 2048, when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence.”

“When I draw long-term plans in this manner some ridicule me. Yes, I am not like other politicians. I have long term plans. My planning in not for my own betterment, but for the young generation of today. I clearly know that I would not eat the fruit of the tree that I plant. But tomorrow, our children of the future generations will enjoy the fruit.

Foreign Policy

On foreign policy, the President said: “Due to the instability of the foreign policy, we faced many disadvantages and setbacks in the international arena. I will change this situation. All countries of the world are our friends. We have no enemies. We do not belong to any group. I will ensure the adoption of a cordial and friendly foreign policy with all countries.”

END

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