Sri Lanka opposition, protesters push anti-government movement under new PM

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives at a Buddhist temple after his swearing-in ceremony amid the country’s economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 12, 2022.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File photo

By Uditha Jayasinghe and Alasdair Pal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s main opposition party joined anti-government protesters on Friday in rejecting the appointment of a new prime minister and insisting that the president resign, responsible for the country’s disastrous economic crisis.

Late on Thursday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa named five-term prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for his sixth term, but comments from the opposition suggested it was unlikely to be resolved Political and economic chaos in the strategic island nation of the Indian Ocean.

A week of violent clashes between protesters and government supporters across the country has left nine dead and more than 300 injured. The president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned as prime minister on Monday and went into hiding at a military base as violence escalated.

Other members of the cabinet quit early.

“It is clear that the (new) prime minister is under the remote control of the president,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a lawmaker and senior member of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya. “This country wants Rajapaksa back home. We are committed to that.”

Protesters who camped for more than a month at a site near the prime minister’s office also rejected the appointment.

“When justice is given to our people, we will stop this fight,” said Chamalage Shivakumar, one of hundreds at the “Gota Go Home” protest site named after the president.

“No matter who they appoint as prime minister, we’re not going to stop this fight until people are relieved.”

Wickremesinghe, 73, is the only member of parliament from the United National Party and will rely on rival parties to form a coalition government. The Rajapaksas-led coalition holds about 100 of the 225 seats in parliament, while the opposition holds 58. The rest are independent.

On Friday, Wickremesinghe held talks with foreign envoys representing India, Japan, the United States and China, his office said.

“Continued cooperation for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and stability through the democratic process was discussed,” the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a tweet.

New Delhi is battling China for influence in Sri Lanka, which sits on a major shipping lane between Asia and Europe and is home to large infrastructure projects financed by both countries.

The prime minister also held an emergency meeting with energy ministry officials to discuss chronic fuel shortages that have plagued the island for months.

Protesters say the appointment of Wickremesinghe will not help assuage anger at the president, who they say is ultimately responsible for the worst economic crisis to hit the country since independence from Britain in 1948.

Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and the Rajapaksa brothers’ populist tax cuts, Sri Lanka is seriously short of foreign exchange reserves.

Rampant inflation and fuel shortages have brought thousands to the streets during a month-long protest that was largely peaceful until this week.

Power outages have averaged five and a half hours a day this week as there is no fuel available for thermal power, Sri Lanka’s electricity regulator said on Friday.

“A cargo has been at the port for a week, but the government is unable to make payments. However, we have increased hydropower and renewable energy to around 60% to cover the shortfall,” said Janaka Ratnayake, chairman of the Sri Lanka Public Utilities Commission, in a statement. .

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