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Sri Lanka: Charting A New Beginning?


President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as finance minister presented the Budget 2023 in the parliament on November 14. His budget address presenting a roadmap for economic recovery was aptly titled ‘Towards a new beginning’. It showed the government’s ambitious target of increasing government revenue, record economic growth rate of 7-8% and increase FDIs to more than $ 3 billion. The splintered voting by major political parties on the Budget in parliament showed that they are yet to come to terms with the political scene after the Aragalaya protests shook up the nation. We can expect new alliances across political parties to emerge before the provincial council (PC) elections are announced in early 2023.

The President’s invitation to all Tamil MPs for a discussion on issues facing the Tamil people and development plans for the North and East indicates revival of interest in the vexed question of ethnic reconciliation. It has received positive response from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, the moot question is how much can the President who has no political mandate make any real progress on this three-decade long issue?

In a special address on November 24, President Wickremesinghe laid down the redlines for protests and public conduct of protestors including students and clergy. Based on the Aragalaya experience, the government is planning to bring a few measures to tighten its control of such situations in the future.

On the external front, China was in damage control mode to recoup its goodwill damaged in the earlier months due to its lack of sensitivity in handling Sri Lanka. It came with the arrival of a tanker containing the gift of 9000 tonnes of kerosene from China.

Concept Of Budget 2023

President Wickremesinghe’s Budget 2023 presented in parliament aims to raise per capita income by creating means of livelihood for young people matching the lifestyles they aspire. At the same time, it will ensure welfare measures of vulnerable sections of society are implemented effectively. He hopes to achieve goals of the Budget through the ‘social market economy or social security open economy’ (though this construct may appear contradictory).

The ‘New Economy’ will have three aspects: export oriented competitive economy, an environmentally friendly green and blue economy and a digital economy. To create the New Economy, new sources of revenue and new areas of economy must be found. For this purpose, extensive economic reforms restructuring and reorganisation will be carried out. This will be followed by focus on modernisation of the delivery system in all aspects of governance.

With suitable legislations and legal amendments in place, he expects to achieve high growth of 7 to 8 percent; increase in international trade as a percentage of GDP by more than 100 percent; annual growth of $3 billion from new exports from 2023 to 2032; FDI of $3 billion in the next 10 years. He also hopes to create an internationally competitive workforce with high skills in the next ten years. In his address, the President went on how he proposes to achieve the goals with details of measures and proposals to flesh out the concept.

President Wickremesinghe cannot be faulted for dreaming big or the confidence with which he presented the concept. As the President emphasised, unless a common social agreement is established between all sections of society and all limbs of government, these ambitious goals cannot be achieved. The million-dollar question is, will the nation as a whole rise up to the occasion to heed the call of a President, who does not enjoy peoples mandate?

Warding Off Another ‘Aragalaya’

The Aragalaya protest movement of the masses was against the misrule by the Rajapaksas that peaked in May 2022. It was a spontaneous movement spearheaded by students, professionals, trade unions and ordinary people egged on by political parties, who leveraged the crowds. Aragalaya achieved its aim of packing off the Rajapaksa clan into exile. it lost its momentum when the immediate goal of dethroning the Rajapaksas was achieved. However, there are sections of leftist student leaders, trade unions and Marxist ultras of the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its clone the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), who wanted systemic changes in the government as part of the Aragalaya agenda. They have been demanding the dissolution of the parliament. Since then the JVP and FSP have been talking of restarting the protest movement.

Speaking in parliament, President Wickremesinghe has made it clear that he will not dissolve the parliament amidst an economic crisis. “Today people are fed up with the political parties and politics” he added that without delivering a system change, politicians will not be able to win the confidence of the people.

Addressing the parliament on November 24, he warned that he will never allow violence and anarchy to prevail under the guise of human rights. If any party indulges in such an attempt the security forces will be used to suppress it completely. Dwelling on the role of the army he said, “when it comes to overthrowing governments, the army cannot stand aside…According to Article 9 of the Constitution, the army has the power to stop them. Such acts of violence cannot be tolerated. We should stop them. We should stop creating chaos by employing clerics.”

Pointing out that some members of the clergy were protesting and causing a disturbance, he added “The Sangha has religious activities to attend. They should engage in those activities. Touching upon the issue of human rights, he said “anarchy and violence cannot be allowed to encroach on human rights…Those who cause violence in the name of human rights cannot be protected,” he warned.

The President said Article 14 of the Constitution outlines our fundamental rights. They can be implemented especially to ensure state security within the limits prescribed by law for public safety, including clauses on the protection of the constitution, as per articles 15/1 and 15/2.

The President has also taken action to amend the university acts to ensure students do not continue beyond the specified period of study. Similarly, he has also approved a bill to register a discourse to give powers to the Maha Sangha to disrobe errant monks.

As expected, the President’s speech has been vehemently criticised by the JVP and sections of civil society. The Socialist Youth Union, the student arm of the JVP, has decided to “warm up the cold months and start the hot struggle in the streets” in the cities and districts. The SYU has said it believed in parliament, the democratic struggle and people's power. It demanded “an opportunity should be given to a new mandate immediately…we are launching the struggle to end 74 years of rule and establish a peoples rule.”

Tailpiece: Legalising cannabis cultivation. President Wickremesinghe’s budget has proposed legalising cannabis cultivation, ostensibly “to boost export of farm produce and forex reserves”. Of course, Western tourists accustomed to smoking a toke as a form of recreation would welcome it. But boost exports? Where? To India? No way. To the US where growing cannabis is a huge business in many states? It is sure to boost drug addiction among the island youth, already exposed to smuggled cannabis and heroin. [Written on November 30, 2022]

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