|SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne
Main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne described President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation last Friday as a manifesto speech and suggested to the Executive that economies are not only built on policy but
also on credibility and confidence.
“There was absolutely no content in the President’s speech. It looked like a manifesto speech for someone who is going to run for President, instead of an incumbent President who has to deliver,” Wickramaratne opined during a media briefing on Saturday.
“We have many problems in this country. We all are facing the COVID pandemic but the vaccine is yet to come. We were promised that 13 million people will be vaccinated very quickly by September. This is impossible. Just consider the AstraZeneca vaccine for 600,000 people, the Government has not been able to get it,” the SJB MP alleged.
He also warned that GSP+ is basically on its way out unless there are some radical changes. “The fertiliser ban is going to reduce the harvest and will create more hunger in the country. The loss of GSP+ will lead to lots of job and income losses,” Wickramaratne said. He said the shipwreck and the huge damage to the environment caused by it were not addressed in the President’s speech.
“Our economy will largely depend on having socio-political stability. In any country, when there is socio-political stability, the country risk falls, ratings will go up and macro-economic indicators will improve,” Wickramaratne said.
He said the President did not address the issue that in the Doing Business Index, Sri Lanka is 99 out of 190 countries. “In global competition, we are 84 out of 141 countries. On the Corruption Perception Index, we are 94 out of 180 countries. This wasn’t addressed either. The Central Bank report reminds us that Sri Lanka is 164th in enforcing contracts. On ICT adoption, we are 107. If we really want to build this economy, those are the matters that should have been addressed in the speech to the nation,” opined the SJB MP.
He also came hard on the President for using many yet selective statistics of the Yahapalanaya regime of
2015-2019, including that the GDP growth rate had come down.
“That was the only correct statistic that the President referred to. Every other statistic referred to was incorrect,” said Wickramaratne, adding he will leave that to those who are doing fact checks to correct the President.
“On debt, the President proved how high debt has become. On Government revenue and taxes, statistics were absolutely wrong. That revenue was needed. On inflation, inflation actually came down during the previous regime. The New Year was celebrated with the lowest cost of living during our period. Reserves were at a high, with over $ 7 billion, now sinking below $ 4 billion,” Wickramaratne said.
“The economy has many challenges. We agree that it is not an easy task. The President has to overcome the pandemic, bring food prices down, increase value-added agriculture, and revive the tourism industry. The apparel, rubber and manufacturing sectors have to be addressed. These are the challenges the President has to face,” the SJB MP said.
“We should focus on the way forward but you didn’t address the way forward,” he added.
He also said with or without the IMF, the Government has to pursue fiscal consolidation, reduce expenditure, eliminate corruption and then use tax revenue to cushion the poor and those who are on the street looking for their next meal.
“That is what taxes do, it brings social justice. Invest in people, not in infrastructure. This is the phase this country is going through. We have seen that poor children cannot participate in online education. Instead of building highways, build high-speed internet coverage. Provide tabs and provide iPads for these children, so that their education will go on uninterrupted. Invest in people rather than infrastructure,” the SJB MP said.
Reminding that Sri Lanka is a small island, Wickramaratne urged the President to open the economy. “Integrate us with the rest of the world. Go that route and help SMEs. Provide them and invest in their technology. Invest not just in fertiliser but in technology for agriculture. That will take this country where it should go. Remember, economies are not only built on policy but on credibility and confidence,” Wickramaratne added.
According to Wickramaratne another important thing that was not addressed was the rule of law in this country and the need for justice for all. This includes media freedom – particularly for the youth who are engaged on social media.
Wickramaratne said the President who won a majority on narrow nationalism is now seeing that majority is disappearing and trying hard now to widen the acceptance amongst other minorities. “That will not be possible without building a Sri Lankan identity. Just referring to Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils will not be good enough. Yes, this country needs a strong national defence policy but our internal defence is strongest when every Sri Lankan feels that they belong here, through a Sri Lankan national identity,” Wickramaratne said.
According to him, Sri Lanka’s external defence is strongest when there is correct foreign policy. “This is what the people were expecting and the President is ignoring this at a huge cost to the Sri Lankan people,” he added.
“A minister gets up in Parliament and he talks of releasing Tamil political prisoners who have been held for years. Most of those prisoners were taken when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President and Gotabaya was Defence Secretary of this country. We all welcome the release of all these people. In Parliament, across all political parties, we welcomed it. But don’t forget, justice delayed is justice denied. It was not a favour to the Tamil people, it was something that should have been done long ago,” Wickramaratne said. He said the Government denied Muslim people their burial rights and ultimately succumbed to international pressure to provide these.
“We would like to suggest that one important thing on the way forward is addressing the issues of governance and the Rule of Law. Don’t undermine the Judiciary by using Executive power to overturn verdicts given by the Judiciary. Uphold all international treaties that Sri Lanka has already become a signatory to. That is not asking too much. Don’t use the PTA to hold people in custody who are opposed to the views of this Government. Build media freedom and don’t go after social media activists who may be saying things that make the Government uncomfortable. Improve your international relations so that we can obtain vaccines easily,” Wickramaratne said.