COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Five-time former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reappointed Thursday in an effort to bring stability to the island nation mired in political and economic crisis.
Wickremesinghe was a controversial choice for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was sworn in at a ceremony at the presidential residence. Protesters blocked the entrance to the president’s office for more than a month.
Mahinda Rajakapsa, the president’s brother, resigned as prime minister on Monday after supporters carried out violent attacks on peaceful anti-government protesters. His resignation automatically dissolved the cabinet, leaving an administrative vacuum.
The president chose Wickremesinghe to end the violence caused by the crisis and restore international credibility as the government negotiates a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund.
Authorities deployed armoured vehicles and troops on the streets of the capital on Wednesday after attacks on protesters sparked a nationwide wave of violence. Nine people were killed and more than 200 injured.
As sporadic arson and vandalism continued despite a strict nationwide curfew that began Monday night, security forces have been ordered to fire on people believed to be involved in the violence.
For weeks, protesters have been calling for Rajapaksa to resign over the 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 citizens wanted sweeping reforms.
Opposition MP Anura Dissananayake said Wickremesinghe was chosen more to protect the president and his family from public anger over his role in the economic crisis, while Not to solve the country’s problems.
When he was foreign minister from 2015 to 2019, Wickremesinghe was accused of protecting Rajapaksa’s powerful family from allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing.
Buddhist and Catholic clergy also opposed Wickremesinghe’s choice.
“This decision completely ignores the wishes of today’s protesters. This decision will only make the protests worse,” said Rev. Omarpe Sobisa, a senior Buddhist monk.
Cardinal Malcolm Rangis, the Catholic archbishop of Colombo, said that to get the country out of the crisis, “we need to completely change the system.”
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not put out the fire, he added fuel to the fire,” said political analyst Ranga Jayasuriya when he appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
“People will be outraged by the snub of appointing someone who has no public support,” Jayasuriya tweeted.
U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said she looked forward to working with Wickremesinghe, whose appointment and “rapid formation of an inclusive government are the first steps in resolving the crisis and promoting stability.”
“We encourage the IMF to make meaningful progress and a long-term solution that meets the needs of all Sri Lankans,” she tweeted.
Sri Lanka, which is close to bankruptcy, has suspended repayments of $7 billion in foreign loans due this year. The IMF said any short- or long-term aid would depend on the outcome of negotiations with creditors to restructure the loans. Of the current total foreign debt of $51 billion, Sri Lanka must repay about $25 billion in foreign loans 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 exchange has forced a sharp drop in imports, leading to severe shortages of essentials such as fuel, gas, food and medicine. For months, people had to wait in long lines to buy limited supplies, and many returned empty-handed.
Wickremesinghe is likely to submit a cabinet list to the president for appointment, a power vested in him by the constitution. If there is any objection to the prime minister or the new cabinet, lawmakers can submit a motion of no confidence to the speaker of the House of Representatives when they reconvene on Tuesday. The motion will then be debated and voted on.
Wickremesinghe, 73, has served in parliament for 45 years. His party was torn apart in 2020 by a leadership crisis, with most senior members leaving to form a new party, which is currently the country’s main opposition.
Wickremesinghe’s reputation was tarnished during his last term as prime minister, when he entered into a difficult power-sharing arrangement with then-president Maithripala Sirisena. Their clashes and communication breakdowns have been blamed on intelligence blunders that killed more than 260 in suicide bombings on Easter Sunday in 2019.
He was also accused of protecting a friend he appointed as central bank governor from insider trading charges.
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