The appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister comes at a time when the country’s economy is in shambles and large numbers of people are enduring hardship. His formal entry into the government, and the authority vested in him through a heavy load of government departments, has given rise to the hope that there will be greater rationality in government decision making in facing the economic challenges. Imports have been restricted and the entirety of the country’s foreign exchange reserve is committed to repaying foreign debt. It is necessary that there should be an influx of foreign exchange. The two key economic challenges that the new minister faces is to find new sources of loans and to preserve the export markets the country currently has. It appears that the reliance on Chinese finances alone, which was once thought possible, has reached its limits for both economic and political reasons.
The government has announced that it is taking steps to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a law that is more in conformity with international standards. The Foreign Ministry reported it had informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices. The EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee and an Officials Committee to assist it and to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months. The Officials Committee comprises officials from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security, Attorney General’s Department, Legal Draftsman’s Department, Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. The Foreign Ministry also announced that the government will continue its close and cordial dialogue with the EU with regard to commitments, while demonstrating the country’s substantial progress in areas of reconciliation and development.
Emerging Possibility of Joint Problem Solving
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation was a carefully scripted one delivered in a tranquil environment overlooking a verdant green landscape with an ancient Buddhist monument symbolizing tranquility in the far background. It was delivered without the trappings of state power, not even the national flag. It seems to have been an endeavor to project the benign personality of the president and evoke sympathetic support of the people. In recent months the president has been coming in for strong criticism in the social media that is outside the realm of governmental patronage and control. Much of the criticism would be planted by political opponents who seek to create an image of a president who is failing. A significant proportion of the criticism appears to be from people who voted for the president but are now disillusioned between his promise and their lived reality. In reality, a sense of despondency is gripping the country.
The presidential decision to pardon a group of LTTE suspects held in custody for many years without trial, and neglected by successive governments, is a welcome gesture meant to commemorate Poson and reaffirm the Buddhist message for peace and harmony for the world community also at this critical juncture of the Covid pandemic. Changing of the death sentences to life sentences is of significance locally and globally where death sentences are outlawed. The undersigned members of the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC) urge the government to give favorable consideration to similar responsiveness in other cases as well.
The EU parliament’s resolution to withdraw its GSP Plus import duty concession to Sri Lanka comes as a body blow to the country at a time when it is economically on the brink. The EU sanction has come much faster than anticipated, if it was anticipated at all. Government spokespersons have tried to make the case that the EU parliament’s resolution is an unjust one. According to them, GSP Plus is about economics and should not involve human rights. The problem is that the purpose of GSP Plus is very different and the government leaders who got it wrong in 2010 when Sri Lanka lost it last, have got it wrong again. The EU has explained GSP Plus as an incentive and a reward to those countries that are committed to improving the human rights situation within their territories. The support that is given to a country’s development is an outcome of respecting and promoting human rights.
Multi-track diplomacy generally refers to international peacebuilding that is not limited to government to government engagements, but also brings in non-governmental actors such as the media, business community and civil society into the frame as well. The meeting between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the US embassy, including USAID which is the development arm of the US government, indicates a possible broadening of the government’s approach to meet the concerns of the international community to which the United States provides leadership. The meeting received wide media coverage although the substance of the coverage was the same, to the effect that steps would be taken to expedite development activities powered by USAID grants.
The US government has decided to include Sri Lanka as one of the countries to which it will donate the excess stock of Covid vaccines it has purchased. The US announced its framework for sharing at least 80 million vaccine doses globally by the end of June and the plan for the first 25 million doses which will include 7 million to specified Asian countries, including Sri Lanka. This is a welcome action that will have a tangible impact on the lives of millions of people in the beneficiary countries. The explosion in the numbers of Covid victims, particularly in poorer countries that have less access to vaccines, has driven up the demand which outstrips supply and to an increase in prices. Sri Lanka which originally was paying only USD 5.50 for a single dose is now paying USD 15 which it can ill afford.
A government minister has pronounced that the vaccine alone may not resolve the Covid perhaps to comfort those who are not able to access the vaccine. For a similar reason another government minister has said that a second dose of vaccine may not be necessary to give effective protection from the coronavirus. Yet another minister has stated it may be possible to give a second vaccine that is different from the first and that research is underway in the country to ascertain this. There were high expectations when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected that the country would de-politicise its decision making and a new era of expert decision making would end the role of politicians in it. This would have reversed the downside of the constitutional change made in 1972 that elevated the power of elected politicians over the state bureaucracy to make decision making more accountable to the people.
The debate over Colombo Port City will not end with the passage of the law in parliament that will govern the new territory claimed from the sea through Chinese investment, technology and negotiations skills. The dream holds out billions of dollars of foreign investment that will be pumped into the national economy and a fast track to development. The bill was passed last week into law even as the country prepared for emergency lockdown in the face of rampaging Covid that has now even infected the Leader of the Opposition and his wife and compelled several parliamentarians to go into quarantine. The vote was 149 in favour with just 58 against, a large majority, but still less than the 2/3 majority needed to permit the enactment of laws that are inconsistent with the constitution.
The 12th year after the end of the war falls this week. Not many people will be thinking of the war at this time unless the matter is consciously brought to their attention. It may have lasted for three decades but it is a receding memory for most. The war is far from the minds of most people as they live harmoniously side by side or separately in their different areas of the country. For those under 20 years of age the war will have no memory at all, unless they were living in an area where the war was fought or attacks took place. Other issues loom large in the minds of the people, in particular the third wave of Covid that confines people to their homes and makes the burden of the economic crisis weigh more heavily upon them.