ECONOMYNEXT – The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP,) in a high profile campaign rally held in Anuradhapura on Wednesday (09), blamed the pandemic and the opposition for the multiple crises the country is currently grappling with, leaving key issues and alleged policy blunders largely unaddressed.

Speaking at the rally, a seemingly defiant President Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that his administration has won back the country’s lost sovereignty and heritage, and invited the public to place their trust in the increasingly unpopular government to deliver on its promises in the remaining three years of its term.

“We come before you having actually done the work.  I ask you to join us – join me – and place your trust [in us],” Rajapaksa told what appeared to be a large crowd of party supporters gathered at the Salgadu Public Ground in Anuradhapura.

“In these difficult times, we have afforded you every relief on every occasion. Going forward, as we take these policies ahead, I pledge to you that we will fully implement the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour that we promised, in the next three years,” he said, to tumultuous applause.

In his uncharacteristically uproarious speech, Rajapaka also promised to increase the income of Sri Lanka’s farmers by 100 percent, though he did not elaborate. Farmers in Anuradhapura and elsewhere have taken to the streets in furious protest of the government’s highly controversial organic fertilizer policy.

“We gave you the fertilizer you needed; we gave you the guaranteed price you wanted. Today you can sell it for 95 rupees.  I guarantee to you that I’m committed to doing anything for the farming community,” the president said, noting that his vision for a green economy was aimed at protecting Sri Lanka’s farmers from deadly disease. He also claimed that vested interests, both local and foreign, are actively working towards disrupting the government’s efforts in this regard.

Criticising the previous government, Rajapaksa claimed that then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was robbed of a third term at a time when he, having “saved the country from terrorism”, was engaged in economic development.

“What happened during those five years [of the Yahapalana government]? The security that we had guaranteed was destroyed, which culminated the Easter bombings. The intelligence units were destroyed. War heroes were betrayed. They went to the international community and destroyed this country’s sovereignty. Our nationality and religion were destroyed.

“Buddhist monks were taken to court. Our religion and culture… Look how today Kuragala, the Muhudu Maha Viharaya, and Digavapiya, have once again become our heritage,” he said.

The Rajapaksa administration has faced harsh criticism from Sri Lanka’s Catholic leadership over its alleged unwillingness to bring justice to the 269 victims of the 2019 Easter bombings, with Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith vowing to take the matter up with the international community. The SLPP has also been met with criticism, particularly by civil society, over its singular emphasis on concerns of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, which critics say is politically motivated.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also addressed the gathering, said the SLPP planned to start a new journey from Anuradhapura, the site of previous public rallies that he said had propelled the party to electoral success.

“Every fight we won was started here. Today we start such a journey from Anuradhapura.

“For two years we battled this COVID-19 pandemic. That entire period, we were focused on saving the people from this epidemic,” said the prime minister, questioning the opposition’s criticism of the government’s handling of the epidemic. He accused the opposition of creating doubts among the public over the efficacy of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine – the country’s most widely used COVID-19 jab yet.

“They were able to play around like this because we silently carried out our work while protecting the people. The longer we stay quiet, the harder they try to create chaos in the country,” he said.

PM Rajapaksa also touched on the fertilizer issue, though he stopped short of admitting that the timing of the policy was questionable.

“You know what the farmer’s issue is. (Audience shouts in support). Yes, yes, we know (laughs). We all know, because we too come from farming,” he said.

Rajapaksa blamed the United National Party (UNP), despite governing for decades, were unable to pay the farmers enough in 2015.

“Remember how farmers drank poison because there was no price [guarantee]? The people shouting now, were they there to check on the farmers then? No.

“But what has happened today? The opposition is now shouting everywhere that this government is the sworn enemy of the farmer,” said Rajapaksa.

Issuing a warning to the opposition, the premier said: “They must remember that we too are very used to the streets. We’re used to going on Paada Yathras. We too will come to the street now.”

Among other government ministers who spoke at the rally, State Minister Channa Jayasuma too blamed the country’s economic crisis – one of the worst in its history – on the pandemic.

“We were handed a country with a destroyed economy and society. Just when we were getting ready to start correcting the wrongs made from 2015 to 2019, the whole world was struck by the pandemic. The whole world is at an economic crisis, and a small country like ours cannot bear up,” said Jayasumana.

“COVID is the real reason we couldn’t reshape this ravaged country, and if anyone says otherwise, I think they will need to get their brains checked,” he added.

Meanwhile, Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila tweeted earlier on Wednesday that, “entire world was gulped by #Corona. Only few countries are faced with foreign currency scarcity. If #Corona is d cause for d present crisis, entire world should have faced the similar situations. Our economic crisis was caused by the debt burden and aggravated by #Corona.”

The factors that experts say led to the current forex crisis , compounded by excess money printing and inflation, was hardly addressed. Jayasumana said the country relied on migrant workers, exports, and tourism to bring in foreign currency.

Although Sri Lankan tourism is on a slow rise, experts say that it will not help solve the forex crisis. Lack of dollars in the country has resulted in several containers worth of essential goods remaining stuck at the Colombo Port, with no dollars to release them.

The party also made several remarks about the country’s “excellent vaccination process.” Transport Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said: “Mahinda Rajapaksha won one war for the country. We have won over the pandemic, and Minister Basil Rajapaksha will triumph over the economic war that we are now facing.”

Wanniarachchi, who was Health Minister during the first two waves of the epidemic, also mentioned that the country was on the cusp of “breathing freely” as the pandemic was nearing its end. The government’s own health officials, however, warn that the Omicron variant is on the rise in Sri Lanka, leading to an increase in daily cases.

Several speakers alleged that the opposition had made remarks about the safety of the vaccines that were imported, and caused fear among the population.

“We are among the top ten countries in the world when it comes to vaccine rollouts,” claimed Minister Kanchana Wijesuriya. International reports suggest otherwise, but experts agree that, despite some initial delays, Sri Lanka’s vaccine drive has indeed been commendable.

However, few speakers offered workable solutions to the crises the country is engulfed with, though many made loud proclamations of faith that the Rajapaksa trio – namely the president, prime minister and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaka – would soon lead the country into the new era promised in 2019. (Colombo/Feb09/2022)