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Sri Lankan President Rejects Demands Of Minorities In Independence Day Oration – OpEd

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Addressing the nation on the 73rd Independence Day of Sri Lanka from a podium in Colombo’s Independence Square on Thursday, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made no bones about what he stands for.

In response to the clamor of the minority Tamils and Muslims for their political and religious rights as distinct communities in a Sri Lankan mosaic, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made no bones about his ethno-religious identity, namely, Sinhala Buddhist. He said that all Sri Lankans will be subject to a uniform law and pledged to uphold the unitary character of the Sri Lankan constitution.

These pledges are significant in the context of two demands: Firstly, the Tamils’ demand for a federal constitution (at the most) and the  full implementation of the devolution system enshrined in the 13th.Amendment of the constitution (at the very least). Secondly, the Muslims’ demand that they be allowed to bury those among them who die of COVID-19 and to have their own marriage and divorce laws.

“I am a Sinhala Buddhist leader and I will never hesitate to state so,” the President said at the very beginning of his speech. “I govern this country in accordance with Buddhist teachings. Within the Buddhist philosophic tradition of peaceful coexistence which gives due respect to all religions and ethnicities, every person in this country irrespective of his or her ethnic or religious identification has the right to enjoy the freedom as equals under the nation’s legal framework.”

Alluding to attempts by the Tamils to garner support at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in pursuit of their campaign to drag Sri Lanka before the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and also to campaigns being carried out by some elite groups who tout the Western line on human rights, the President said: “Traitorous elements always band together and seek to marshal domestic and foreign forces against the leadership that upholds indigenous way of life and country’s sovereignty. Such elements mislead the public through false propaganda in a subtle way.”

“I request the people of our nation to always think critically before acting. If people make assessments based on facts and take decisions only after finding out the truth, no one will be able to mislead the public,” he added

To drive the point home, he added: “I have sworn as the nation’s leader to always protect our nation’s independence, unitary status, territorial integrity and sovereignty on behalf of our future generations. I will always uphold that pledge.”

Equal Treatment For Minorities

However the President assured the minorities of equal treatment. “Sri Lanka is a democratic nation. Every citizen who lives in this country has equal rights. We reject any efforts to divide our citizens based on ethnic or religious reasons. We always strive to protect the fundamental rights and human rights of all our citizens, and always stand for the principle of one nation, one law.” He assured that he would meet the public’s expectation of a “fair and unbiased and efficient service from the officials who enforce the law.”

On Easter Sunday Bombings

On action in relation to the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in which more than 200 died, the President said that he had already given instructions to implement the inquiry commission’s recommendations. “We will not allow those responsible for designing and enabling this tragedy to escape justice.  We will never allow extremism to raise its head again, in this country,” he pledged. He also pledged to punish those involved in the multi-million rupee Central Bank Bond scam.

Economic Development Amid Pandemic

On economic development in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the President said:   “I have always maintained that in order to strengthen farmers economically we must encourage them to become agricultural entrepreneurs. It is our aim to further develop and strengthen the domestic agriculture sector so that it becomes a significant foreign exchange earner.”

On industrial development, the President said: ” The Government has taken action to encourage these sectors through the provision of tax incentives and by reducing interest rates. A great improvement is already visible in traditional handicrafts such as batik, cane, clay and jewellery through the state ministries that were established for this purpose.”

“We have paid attention to provide entrepreneurs engaged in small and medium enterprises as well as those who are self-employed avenues in minimizing delays in various approvals they require, in helping them to access financing at single digit interest rates and in obtaining required training.’

“Providing stimulus to the construction industry has been shown to be a successful means of reviving stalled economies. Initiatives such as the 100,000 kilometer roads programme; the 10,000 bridges programme; the reconstruction of thousands of irrigation tanks around the country under the ‘Irrigation Prosperity’ programme; the programme to construct 14,000 houses under the theme of ‘one village, one house’; the creation of 100,000 housing units for middle income earners, low income earners and urban shanty dwellers; the programme to construct 4,000 houses for estate workers; and the construction of walkways for densely populated areas around the country will provide great benefits to the public at large whilst directly supporting the revival of the economy.”

Foreign Direct Investment

On encouraging Foreign Direct Investments he said: “While our policy of not selling national economic hubs to foreigners remains unchanged, I trust that the public will critically assess the misinformation and misinterpretations being propagated by those with ulterior political motives to deter foreign investors from investing in Sri Lanka.”

Spreading Education

On the subject of making university education available to more people than now, the President said: ” During the course of this year, the number of students gaining admission to universities will increase by 10,000, or 30 percent. Provisions have been made to double the number of students entering the state Technical Colleges from 100,000 to 200,000. Approval has been granted for the creation of a system of city universities catering to every district in order to increase the capacity of universities. We are acting quickly to implement recommendations for educational reforms. As a result, we anticipate that there will be an appreciable qualitative improvement in the education sector within the next few years.”

Reviving Tourism

Turning to the collapsed tourism sector, the President said: “Our tourism industry earned approximately US$ 4.5 billion annually and provided direct and indirect employment to three million people. These people are now in great difficulty as they are unable to make a living from tourism. We need to find solutions for these people as soon as possible. As such, whilst strictly adhering to health recommendations, we have acted to restart the tourism industry in a phased manner.”

Pledge To Safeguard National Interest

Finally the President assured his countrymen that he will “never take decisions that will damage the country and to please those who seek gains for themselves personally or for their businesses.”

In a call to eschew negativity, he said: “No contribution can be expected from pessimists and those who do nothing but criticize the work of others. What we require today is the support of citizens with a positive vision, who love their country, who contribute to society, and who do not make unfair criticism but offers practical solutions to the issues we face. “

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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