Docile Presidents and Populist Presidents- Part II
Posted on April 25th, 2020

By : A.A.M.NIZAM – MATARA

The Sunday Times Political Editor wrote in his weekly column on 19th April said that {President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did not go to Medamulana this year to celebrate Avurudu (New Year) with his brothers and instead he held several meetings in Colombo on measures to be taken to curtail the spread of the Corona Virus, steps to be taken to ease the economic hardships of the people and on opening up the country for economic revival.   

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa discussed revitalizing the economy while containing the COVID-19 crisis with Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga in an interview recently. Following are excerpts:

Q: Ayubowan, Your Excellency! are you satisfied with the course of action the State has taken over the past few months to suppress COVID-19 virus from spreading? As you have a good understanding of the progress of this course of action, I would appreciate an analysis from you in this regard.

From the labourer in the health sector’s lowest rank to Public Health Inspectors, nurses, specialist doctors, and other officers have rendered a huge service to control this virus. The Tri-Forces, Police, Intelligence units too are contributing tirelessly to these efforts. At the same time, it has been the commitment of the public servants including secretaries to ministries, district, and divisional secretaries that have ensured an uninterrupted continuation of essential services. 

Today, the reason we have managed to keep the situation under control is because of this difficult undertaking by all these personalities. I must also thank our citizens for bearing up with these difficult times. 

The first case of the coronavirus or COVID-19 was reported from Wuhan in China in December 2019. The Chinese Government understood the seriousness of this virus by mid-January and warned the world about it. 

This presented us with the challenge of bringing back 34 Sri Lankans studying in Wuhan and their immediate families. We then sent a special flight to China on 1 February to bring them back. As soon as they landed, they were subject to a carefully organised quarantine program in the Diyatalawa Army Camp. Thereby, we ensured that this virus did not enter our country.

I, as the President of this country and my Administration, understood the danger of this epidemic early on and took decisive steps to control it. On 26 January itself, under my leadership as the President, the National Task Force was established bringing the Health Ministry, Tri-Forces, Police, Intelligence, and other related disciplines together. Their primary task was to advise the Government on the steps to control the epidemic. 

On 27 January, the first COVID-19 patient was identified from Sri Lanka. She was a Chinese tourist. Even at that time, we observed that this virus had already spread to countries like Iran and South Korea where a large number of Sri Lankans were working. As many Sri Lankans were returning from these countries, there was a danger of this virus entering the country through them. Accordingly, we decided on 10 February that it is imperative for those arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran to be quarantined in a quarantine centre. 

On 16 February, we decided that everyone who arrives in Sri Lanka must be quarantined. On 12 March, we closed every school, university, and education centre for vacations for if one child got infected, it can easily spread among the other children. While the schools and universities were physically closed, we established a separate Task Force to facilitate distance learning

By 18 March, we have decided to ban all arrivals from Airports.

 However, the administration sympathized with the 900 pilgrims who got stranded in India. Thus, a special flight was sent to bring them back home. They were also sent to a quarantine centre. The first ‘Work from Home’ week for public servants was declared on 20 March to 27 March. The reason for this was the all-island curfew that was imposed on 20 March. 

The Chinese lady who was found infected with the virus on 27 January made a complete recovery and left for China on 19 February. Thereafter, the next patient, the first Sri Lankan was identified on 11 March. He was admitted to the IDH. Since then, almost every day new patients were identified. Out of them, 38 were those who had come from abroad and were already in quarantine centres. Since then, another 79 from quarantine centres had been tested positive for COVID-19. We also found another 139 outside quarantine centres, who had got infected in various ways. 

Q: Your Excellency, you have a piece of very comprehensive knowledge about the State machinery. You just explained with the timeline the steps taken to contain this crisis. It is clear to us that the administration has tackled this issue with awareness. I would like to ask you, what steps does the Government take when a person tests positive for COVID-19?

I receive a lot of data daily. I make my decisions based upon them. The Chief of Intelligence plays a major role in this process together with me. Since we had a proper mechanism from the beginning to control the spread of the virus, we have all the information about infected people. We can identify early how he was infected, what are the places he visited, who he associated with as well as who are vulnerable to be infected. This way we can send them for quarantine on time.

Discovering patients outside quarantine centres later shows that infected people had arrived in Sri Lanka even before this process began. Also, people had come from countries such as Indonesia. We have been able to identify them only after they had come to hospitals with symptoms. If someone shows signs of corona we send that person to IDH hospital and conduct PCR examination. Once we identify a patient, we send his family members, people who he associated with and people in the areas where he visited for quarantine.

We examine all the information about the person such as how he was infected, from whom he was infected. This method is called contact tracing. After identifying the infected will be sent to a hospital. People who he had associated will be separated from the rest and send to quarantine centres. Those who had a distant relationship with the infected will be subjected to self-quarantine. Public Health Officers and the Police visit these people at their homes. 

If there is a threat that a large number of people to be infected we will have to isolate the area they live in. Most cases currently being reported are from these kinds of groups. We have been able to minimise the community transmission of the disease. This is due to the fact that we identify the infected earlier and direct for the quarantine process. I have read some articles which stated that Sri Lanka was successful in controlling the spread with the method of contact tracing with the support of Intelligence Services.

Q:  Your Excellency, although social distancing prevented people from getting infected with this deadly disease, there is a notion in society that people have to face numerous hardships due to the ongoing curfew. We saw how people gathered in large flocks to purchase essential food items and medicine when the curfew was lifted. We witnessed how you were moved by this. How do you see this situation?

We are all aware that the current curfew has an impact on day-to-day life. But we as a nation have to battle against an invisible enemy. We knew that people will face the issue of storing food once the curfew is imposed. Hence, the Government took several people-friendly decisions. We especially took measures to reduce the price of dhal and tinned fish, two very common food items in the country. We knew beforehand that imposing curfew was imminent. 

The Government took every possible measure to ensure the continuation of several sectors such as agriculture, which has a direct impact on the life of the people. We have granted permission to the farmers in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and other areas to continue their agricultural activities. We know many daily wage earners and self-employed people have been badly hit. That is why the Government took measures to grant Rs. 5,000 to them. 

We set up a task force under Mr. Basil Rajapaksa to look into the matters of the people during the curfew period and provide solutions to them. The Government took several measures to ensure maintaining normalcy in civilian life. Salaries were paid on time. Loan installments were suspended. Pensioners were paid on time. People were also exempted from payments of loan installments. The daily wage-earners were given many facilities. The entire country is aware of these steps.

Furthermore, those who earn a daily income as three-wheeler drivers, school van drivers, and bus drivers were provided with concessions on payment of the lease. We have also provided assistance to private companies that we’re unable to pay wages to their employees. Such benefits were given to the people who were faced with economic difficulties.

It is true that there were some difficulties. We are carrying out these tasks amidst those difficulties. Hence, I appeal not to make use of those difficulties in order to achieve some other objectives. Although there are criticisms against the public service, I believe we have been able to provide these services because of the ability of the State sector.

Q: Now Your Excellency will have to take a fresh look at the economy. When you presented the ‘Saubhagyaye Dekma’ (Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour), your economic strategies were outlined in it. If we had continued to work on those strategies, we could have reached someplace. Now, we have to think again about new strategies. The entire country is waiting to see what the Government led by the President will do now. This is an issue affecting our people. Could you explain your new vision?

Several spheres of our economy have been badly hit. Now, after a period of one month, we have to think as to how the economy could be revived. Areas such as tourism, small and medium industries, the apparel industry, and others that earned foreign exchange have faced severe setbacks due to the coronavirus. This is a good opportunity for us to change economic strategy and direct it towards the indigenous economy. In the past, we have imported even the goods that could be locally produced. Now we cannot only be self-sufficient in agriculture, but we can also export our agricultural products to other countries.

When the economies of all the countries collapse, our economy too will collapse. Even if we bring our economy to a satisfactory level through systematic measures, we will still face difficulties unless the global economy becomes normal.

Let us take the tourism sector as an example. We especially welcome many European tourists, but now we do not know when they will be able to come. This is a good opportunity for us to think new and see what countries would recover first from this crisis. We have to think about how we could attract tourists from those countries to visit us. 

Similarly, we may have to seek new markets for our exports. This is also a good opportunity to produce the protective clothing required in the health sector. Information technology is a sector that would continue unhindered. That is also a sector that could treble our export income while generating employment in the country. Food security is of immense importance. The entire world is keen to achieve food security. This is a good opportunity for us not only to be self-sufficient in food but also to export food items.

Then, there is the issue of increasing the income of farmers. This is a good opportunity for that. One is to introduce new technology to farmers. This is a good chance for us to introduce the latest agricultural technology to farmers and improve this sector. We can bring new technology and encourage the youth to enter the farming sector and develop agriculture-based industries. This is a good opportunity to build an indigenous economy.

This is a break to start farming every day. Public sector entities have large extents of State land. These companies are making losses. They must become profit-making ventures. There are also loss-making tea estates. We must ensure that these would become profit-making companies. We must make them efficient. They must grow in every unused cultivable land. They must also grow new crops under traditional crops.

We must be happy about the history of our Tea Board. It has, for the first time in history, conducted an online tea auction using modern technology. We have these types of indigenous economic models. We must change our strategies. We must seek new markets and develop them. 



Q: There are no foreign flights coming now. The airport has been closed. There are many Sri Lankans living in countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, England and Belarus waiting to come to Sri Lanka. What are the steps that could be taken regarding them?

There is a plan for that. It has been prepared to take into consideration the priorities of those who want to come back to the country. The first priority is to get the students. A plan has been set in motion. They will have to undergo a PCR test at the airport. 

After the PCR test, they will be sent to quarantine centers. Measures have been taken to ensure that nobody will get infected or infect others. However, we can bring only a limited number in a day. We have examined and prioritized them. We have already sought permission from those countries because their airports have also been closed. We have asked for our aircraft to land and once the permission is granted we bring them to the country.



Q: You have always expressed interest in preventing the economy from collapsing and bringing back normalcy to public life. What steps you will implement towards this end?

We have always taken into consideration the impact on the economy and the people when curfew has been imposed to keep the people indoors. We have discussed with economic experts, senior officials of the Central Bank, industrialists, and leading businessmen with sound knowledge on the economy and take these decisions. We have considered the requirement to contain the virus and the requirements when the country is opened again and balanced them in accordance with the situation and taken these decisions. 

We examined the areas in which the patients were detected. We did not lift the curfew in Puttalam, Gampaha, Colombo, and Kalutara. In certain areas, we tried to limit the closure to Police divisions. But in certain areas, it could not be limited to Police divisions. We have imposed curfew in entire districts to cover those affected areas. In some districts, there isn’t a single patient. In some districts, there are one or two. They too have been infected during their visits abroad. We can easily open those districts. That is why we decided to lift curfew in certain districts. We took this decision in order to give an opportunity to open the industries. This was also done to ensure the transport of local agricultural products.

The public sector has been closed down for one month. The public sector has a big responsibility for providing services to the public. We have lifted curfew not for the people to travel unnecessarily. We can get the maximum benefit from the steps taken by the Government, health authorities, and the Police if the people act with responsibility. We have seen in media about the instances of curfew violations by some people. Some people have been detained. Vehicles have been confiscated. I urge with the responsibility to adhere to the instructions given by the health authorities. The threat of the virus is not over. We have managed and controlled it. But we need the support of the people to continue this process.



Q: Your Excellency, so far we have discussed the steps taken to control the spread of new coronavirus, the results thereof, the effects of the virus on the public and the economy, and the short-term remedial measures. Some people ask, why can’t this be delayed further?

The Western Province contributes more than 50% of our economy. The economic experts are of the view that if we delay this further, the economy will face a massive problem. The daily wage earners in society have been very badly affected. Hence, we decided to take this measure. I would like to extend the closure for another month if possible. But we had to make a grave decision. What will happen if a country is completely closed for a month?

If there are certain doubts about the opening up this time, the people will be able to remove those doubts. Why did we impose curfew? It was to ensure social distancing. If people take responsibility and adhere to these regulations, we will not have to face any problems. Now the Police and Tri-Forces have been deployed in Colombo District to control this situation. Earlier they were spread across the country. But I instructed the Defence Secretary to ensure that the situation remains under control as it was during the war and ensure that people would not make unnecessary visits and that they act in a disciplined manner.



Q: Your Excellency, When considering the long-term aspect, there should be a stable government. The Election Commission states that although the Parliamentary Polls scheduled were to be held on 25 April with the aim of successful completion of all these initiatives, it will not be possible to hold the elections on the scheduled day. What is your point of view in this regard? 

I won the Presidential Election held on 16 November 2019 with a very clear mandate of 6.9 million votes. I have presented a manifesto called ‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’ to the people. The majority of the people in this country have democratically elected their President to implement that manifesto. Even though the people had approved my vision for the country, I had to work with the Parliament elected in August 2015. That Parliament did not represent the present public opinion. Since there was no majority in Parliament, I had to form a minority government. 

When I took office as President, there was no budget passed for the year 2020. The previous Government was ruling the country through a Vote on Account. At that time, the country was already facing a major economic crisis. A new budget or else an interim budget was needed to implement my policies as people expected. As we promised, to allocate more funds to develop the fields of education, technology, and agriculture, to generate new employment opportunities, to rebuild the collapsed economy, the Government needs to possess the ability of handling finance.   

This is why I decided to dissolve the Parliament on 2 March at the first time I got the opportunity to do so according to the powers vested in me by the Constitution, and to hold an election on 25 April and to call the new Parliament on 14 May with the aim of depicting the true public opinion. Accordingly, the Election Commission was vested with the complete freedom and power necessary to conduct an independent election. The foremost obligation and duty of the Election Commission is to ensure the supremacy of the people by holding elections at the right time while respecting the democratic right of the people to elect their representatives by a vote. But all of you know that the Election Commission has taken steps to postpone the election indefinitely in view of the current epidemic situation.

According to the Constitution, the new Parliament should meet within three months after the dissolution of the Parliament. Consequently, the last date for the new Parliament to be convened is 2 June. It is the independent Election Commission that has to decide the date on which the elections will be held. The Independent Election Commission has the right to hold the election appropriately under the present circumstances. If they want, they can take several days for the election.

The Election Commission has wide powers regarding holding elections under the current constitution. I am not ready to pressurise the independent Election Commission to hold or postpone elections. I have done everything so far constitutionally and have announced the date for the new Parliament to be convened. Unless a new Parliament is elected by 2 June, I will not be able to summon it. It has to be done on a future date. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I will not be able to recall the old Parliament. I don’t even have a legal right to do that.

To date, my Government has taken all the necessary steps to curb the new coronavirus. A number of groups including all the major parties in the country have submitted their nominations correctly for the election. Therefore, the responsibility of holding the elections is now with the Independent Election Commission. The Government has given it all the legislative support it needed in this regard. I am ready to call the new Parliament once the election is over and MPs are elected.

Q: Your Excellency, at the moment various Opposition groups are issuing statements to the effect that there is no environment to hold the elections and the Parliamentary Elections should be further postponed. They do not even state when it should be held. What is your opinion on this?

Today, the people have the opportunity to understand the disguised motives of those who dream that the country could be taken into a constitutional crisis by continuous calling for the postponement of the election. I remind everyone at this point that there is no special legal issue as to what the country needs and how it can be done and it is constitutionally very clear what should be done and who has the ultimate responsibility.

I hope to fulfill the promises made to the people by implementing policies included in the ‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’ while successfully facing the threat of the new coronavirus which has brought the whole world to its knees. I expect all of you, who love the country, to render your valuable and necessary support in this regard.

UNICEF says that Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader who is very close to the hearts of children. UNICEF has initiated a program to enlighten the children of under 18 years of age about the Corona Virus.  Under this program, children are requested to send their queries on Corona Virus in a voice tape of a maximum of 10 seconds to Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official Facebook account and for which Mr. Rajhapaksa would respond via his Facebook account.

 

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