Sri Lanka re-elected five former prime ministers to quell political and economic crisis

Colombo, Sri Lanka — Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was re-elected Thursday as part of efforts to stabilize the island nation in the midst of a political and economic crisis.

Wickremesinghe, the controversial choice of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was sworn in at a ceremony held at the presidential residence. Protesters have blocked the entrance to the Oval Office for over a month.

The president’s younger brother, Mahinda Rajakapsa, resigned as prime minister on Monday after violent attacks by supporters on peaceful anti-government protesters. His resignation automatically dissolved the cabinet, leaving an administrative gap.

The president’s choice of 73-year-old Wickremesinghe is an attempt to end the violence sparked by the crisis and restore international confidence as the government negotiates a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, visits a temple after taking an oath ceremony in Colombo, on June 10, 2019.Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP – Getty Images

On Wednesday, authorities deployed armored vehicles and troops on the streets of the capital after attacks on protesters provoked waves of violence across the country. Nine people were killed and over 200 were injured.

As sporadic arson and vandalism continue despite a strict national curfew that began on Monday evening, security forces have been ordered to shoot those who appear to have taken part in the violence.

For weeks, protesters have been calling for both Rajapaksas to resign over a debt crisis that has nearly bankrupted the country and caused severe shortages of fuel, food and other necessities.

Some opposition politicians and religious leaders opposed Wickremesinghe’s appointment, saying the citizens wanted sweeping reforms.

Opposition lawmaker Anura Dissananayake said Wickremesinghe’s choices were more about protecting the president and his family from public outrage over his role in the economic crisis than solving the country’s problems.

When he served as foreign secretary from 2015 to 2019, Wickremesinghe was charged with protecting Rajapaksa’s powerful family from allegations of corruption and other crimes.

Buddhist and Catholic clergy also opposed Wickremesinghe’s choice.

“This decision was made completely ignoring the wishes of those who are protesting today. “This decision will only make the protests worse,” he said.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, said, “We need a complete systemic change” for the country to come out of crisis.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lit the fire without extinguishing it,” political analyst Ranga Jayasuriya said when appointing Wickremesinghe as prime minister.

“People will be more outraged by this sarcastic remark of appointing someone without public support,” Jayasurya tweeted.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung Juju is looking forward to working with Wickremesinghe and said his appointment and “the rapid formation of an inclusive government are the first steps toward resolving the crisis and promoting stability.”

“We encourage meaningful progress in the IMF and long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans,” she tweeted.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has stopped paying off its $7 billion foreign debt due this year. The IMF said short-term or long-term support would depend on the outcome of negotiations with creditors on loan restructuring. Sri Lanka has to pay off about $25 billion of its current total external debt of $51 billion by 2026.

The Treasury Department said earlier this month that the country’s available foreign exchange reserves had plummeted to $25 million.

The shortage of foreign currency led to a sharp decline in imports, resulting in severe shortages of necessities such as fuel, gas for cooking, food and medicine. For months, people had to stand in long lines to buy limited supplies, and many returned empty-handed.

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