In a policy statement yesterday to the newly elected Parliament where the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has a majority of almost two-thirds, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made what most independent analysts saw as a calm thirty-minute speech that was an example of being humble in victory but clear cut and concise in what he and his Government hoped to do in the coming months and years.
Apparently on the President’s direction there was little pump and pageantry, no 21 gun-salute or guard of honour or military parade, though the President himself is a retired army officer. But for the first time in more than 70 years the President wore coat and tie as he sat on the Speaker’s chair for the ceremonial opening policy statement. The last to do this was Sri Lanka’s first Governor General Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke popularly known as OEG. Though it is not an important factor, opposition critics could point out that it was also not in keeping with hallowed national cultural practices.
In 1960 the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointed William Gopallawa as the Governor General and he also wore the national dress. In 1972, when a Republican Constitution was enacted and Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Mr. Gopallawa was appointed as the President but only with ceremonial powers.
Then in 1978, J.R. Jayewardene whose United National Party (UNP) won a record five-sixth majority in Parliament, implemented the Executive Presidential Constitution on February 4, 1978. Since then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, President D.B. Wijetunga, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena also wore the national dress while President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was the Executive President from 1994 to 2005, obviously could not wear the national dress and wore a saree.
In yesterday’s policy statement, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that since winning the November 2019 elections with a record of more than 6.9 million votes, one of his great achievements was the curbing of the Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka while highly developed countries like the United States were badly hit with the virus leaving millions dead or afflicted.
The President said his Government was able to do this by enforcing strict health regulations including a three-month curfew or lockdown, closed all schools, making it compulsory for people to wear masks in public, maintain a physical space distancing of at least one metre and regularly wash their hands with soap before entering places where there were crowds and when they returned home. Unfortunately, while the President made his policy statement in Parliament yesterday, many of the members were not wearing masks but kept them on the table. After the President’s policy statement there was the traditional tea party attended by hundreds of people. Few if any of them wore masks. Politicians are known or notorious for preaching what they do not practice and making broken promises. We hope this will not be the case again because Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a record majority in the November 2019 Presidential Election and his party also won a record majority in the August 5 General Elections. Sri Lanka’s people have expressed the unprecedented trust and confidence in the Rajapaksa administration and we hope the President will crack the whip on any Minister, Minister of State or MP who indulges in bribery, corruption or other crimes to make hundreds or thousands of millions of rupees at the expense of poor and poverty-trapped people. In his speech the President himself has emphasised he would not allow any corruption, wrong doing, waste of time, idling or ill-treatment of the people by ministries or other state departments and organisations.
Another notable feature yesterday was that in 1977, when J.R. Jayewardene won a five-sixth majority in Parliament, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—the root from which the SLPP was formed—had only a few seats in Parliament and the Post of Opposition Leader went to the Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) Appapillai Amirthalingam. Yesterday the devastated UNP had no member in Parliament because the party has still not reached consensus on the solitary national list seat it received. What a turn of events, showing that life is impermanent and transient.
Essentially, President Rajapaksa’s policy statement focused on improving the economy by giving more hi-tech facilities to agriculture, fisheries and other local industries while curbing imports. In the vital area of medicine he pledged that Sri Lanka would make every effort to locally manufacture the medicinal drugs we need instead of importing more than ten thousand drugs as we do now. That is good medicine for our ailing country and we hope the President will implement his pledge to ensure that politicians and other government servants will act as servants of the people and not as masters who ill-treat or dominate the masses.