COLOMBO: Two-time President and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday blamed “foreign forces” and the former government for Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, while admitting to “some wrong decisions” taken by their ousted administration.
Foreign powers “eyeing Sri Lanka’s national assets”, and their “local agents” who were “still active” were fuelling anti-government protests, Mr. Mahinda told Parliament, during the second reading of the Budget presented by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Finance Minister. “It was them who sponsored the protests in the country. Their action affects the tourism sector, which has now begun to recover,” Mr. Mahinda said, calling Mr. Wickremesinghe’s crucial, crisis-time Budget a “giant leap” to stabilise the economy.
In July this year, Mr. Wickremesinghe was elected President through a parliamentary vote, in which the Rajapaksas’ party — holding majority in the House — backed him, after mass public protests dislodged Mr. Gotabaya, in the wake of an unprecedented economic crisis. Citizens accused the Rajapaksa clan that held all important positions in office of presiding over the country’s dreadful financial crash with poor policy choices, corruption, indiscriminate borrowing, and a refusal to course correct despite experts raising alarm. The Rajapaksa administration’s explanation, citing the pandemic’s aftermath and the former Maithripala Sirisena – Ranil Wickremesinghe government’s policies, did not appease angry protesters, whose relentless agitations forced Mr. Gotabaya, then PM Mr. Mahinda, then Finance Minister and another ruling sibling Basil Rajapaksa, and the entire Cabinet to resign.
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Mr. Wickremesinghe, who has likened his task to taking over the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, has vowed to put the economy on a path of recovery. However, with Colombo making little headway in restructuring the country’s foreign debt, the wait for the $2.9 billion package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be longer than was expected by the government. Budget 2023, passed on Tuesday with a majority of 37 votes in the 225-member House, aims to introduce policies in line with the IMF’s expectations, but it has also drawn criticism from economists, political opposition, and government critics. They point to inadequate social security for the poor and high defence spending, among other aspects, as major drawbacks.
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Mr. Mahinda sought to defend the government’s allocation for the defence sector – LKR 539 billion, an increase by over 10 % since last year – that some, mainly Tamil parliamentarians, slammed in the House. “Some are questioning the defence allocation. I would like to tell them that a country’s defence is more important than anything else. We will not allow the nation’s security to be at stake,” Mr. Mahinda added.
Although the Rajapaksa brothers resigned from office, their party still has a majority in Parliament. Mr. Gotabaya, who fled the country, is back in Colombo and has been accorded special security by the government. Mr. Basil, the strategist of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) who also left the country amid public rage, returned last weekend, with high-ranking police officials receiving him at the airport.