After the prorogation of parliament on April 12, a new session was ceremonially inaugurated yesterday with a confident President Maithripala Sirisena making a policy statement in which he outlined the important achievements of the coalition government and the key aspects of the plans for the next 18 months before his term ends in November next year.
In the wake of the August 2015 parliamentary elections, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) decided to form a consensus government. It was the first time since Independence in 1948 that the two major parties agreed to work together and the disputes or divisions that arose were not unexpected.
The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary were restored while the 19th Amendment strengthened democracy to a large extent. We also saw important achievements such as the landmark Right to Information Act (RTI) and major progressive steps in the important fields of public health services and education. But the SLFP was split down the middle with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa going all out to get back to power. This led to a crisis culminating in its devastating defeat at the local council elections on February 10 this year. Since then, the coalition government has faced conflict after conflict with parliamentarians going here, there and some of them nowhere.
It was in such a backdrop that President Sirisena made his policy statement yesterday and expressed confidence that the coalition government in the coming 18 months could win back the hearts and minds of the people. He said in the coming months, the socio-economic policies would be people-friendly and bring practical economic benefits to the people.
The President, as he has often said, stressed again that the highest priority would be given to poverty alleviation. Without this structural adjustment where the gap between the rich and the poor is significantly reduced, the hearts and minds of the people cannot be won. That was the clear message from the local council elections. Almost all over the world, we see a monstrosity where one per cent of the rich and ruling elite own more wealth and resources than 50% of the people.
As a major part of the poverty alleviation programme, the President said, the coalition would give priority to the generation of new and productive job opportunities, especially for the youth. Economic analysts have said that instead of just doling out money through schemes like Samurdhi, the provision of well-paid jobs would help restore the human dignity of poverty-stricken families. This in turn would go a long way in building a just, peaceful and all-inclusive society.
President Sirisena is still very much aware that it was the minority votes that led him to victory at the presidential election on January 8, 2015. In the policy statement yesterday, the President said steps were being taken to give the Tamil people an equal place and equal rights while addressing their grievances. He assured that the government would also give equal rights to the Muslim people while taking effective steps to protect their socio-cultural values. The President, the Prime Minister and other coalition government leaders have stressed that by giving equal rights to the minorities, they hoped to strengthen the Sri Lankan identity of all people, so that all races and religions could work together in a spirit of unity in diversity for the common good of all.
Up-country Tamil workers have for decades been oppressed and given a raw deal despite their hard work from morning till night. The President promised that steps would be taken to give them also an equal place in society. While doing this, the President assured the government would see to the welfare of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, protect and develop their cultural heritage. While empowering women, and making provision for those with special needs, the President said that an eco-friendly, all-inclusive and sustainable development policy would be implemented.
We hope that while working towards these goals, the government will ensure that all politicians – ranging from ministers and MPs to Provincial and Pradeshiya Sabha Members – will sincerely, sacrificially and selflessly serve the people, instead of getting involved in large-scale bribery, corruption, frauds and other political crimes as we have often seen up to now. Only then will we see a new Sri Lanka.