Sri Lanka appoints new prime minister to tackle growing crisis

  • Wickremesinghe held the position five times before
  • Island nation desperately needs money, in talks with IMF
  • Protests turned deadly this week before easing

COLOMBO, May 12 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka named a new prime minister on Thursday as the embattled president seeks a way out of the country’s worst economic crisis since independence, which has sparked widespread protests.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, a political veteran who has served as the island’s prime minister five times before, must try to deal with the financial chaos and heal political divisions as he sets out to form a coalition government.

“We are facing a crisis, we have to get out of it,” Wickremesinghe told Reuters as he left a temple in the capital Colombo shortly after being sworn in. When asked if there was a possible solution, he replied, “Absolutely.”

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The 73-year-old is an economic liberal with experience with the International Monetary Fund, which is currently in talks to save Sri Lanka.

He has also built relationships with the regional powers of India and China, key investors and lenders competing for influence over the island, which lies along busy shipping routes connecting Asia to Europe.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa congratulated the new prime minister.

My best wishes to the newly appointed Prime Minister…who took up the challenge of leading our country through a very turbulent time,” he tweeted. “I look forward to working with him to make Sri Lanka strong again. †

The current crisis could be Wickremesinghe’s biggest challenge yet.

Economic mismanagement, the COVID-19 pandemic and rising energy costs after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have drained the state treasury, meaning Sri Lanka is running out of fuel and essential medicines and faces daily power outages.

Rajapaksa, whose older brother replaced Wickremesinghe as prime minister, has imposed a nationwide curfew and given security forces sweeping powers to shoot at anyone involved in looting or endangering life.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned on Monday, has gone into hiding at a naval base.

NO MONEY

Ordinary people have become increasingly frustrated with disruptions to normal life.

“We have bottomed out economically,” said Nimal Jayantha, an auto rickshaw driver who queued for gasoline earlier on Thursday after the curfew was lifted.

“I don’t have time to do my job. By the time I stay in the fuel queue and get gas, there’s a curfew. I’ll have to go home with no money.”

Many people boarded buses in Colombo earlier on Thursday to return to their hometowns during a brief easing of the curfew.

On Monday, mostly peaceful demonstrations erupted into violence after supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked an anti-government protest camp in Colombo. read more

Days of violent reprisals against government figures aligned with the powerful Rajapaksa clan followed.

Security forces were called in to patrol the streets, and police said nine people were killed and more than 300 injured in the clashes, which have since abated.

Protesters have sprayed graffiti on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home in a southern city and looted a museum dedicated to his father. They have vowed to continue the protests until the president also resigns. read more

On Thursday, a magistrate issued an order barring him, his son Namal and other key allies from entering the country, lawyers present at the hearing said.

“Personally, I will fully cooperate with any investigation that takes place regarding the unfortunate events that occurred on Monday,” Namal Rajapaksa said in a tweet following the order.

“Neither my father nor myself intend to leave (Sri Lanka).”

Colombo’s stock market, which had been closed for the past two days, ended up more than three percent on Thursday on optimism about a new cabinet, traders said. It closed before Wickremesinghe was appointed.

The governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank said on Wednesday that failing to find a solution to the crisis in the next one to two weeks would lead to power cuts of up to 10 to 12 hours a day, as well as his own resignation.

President Rajapaksa has repeatedly called for a unity government to find a way out of the crisis, but opposition leaders say they will not serve until he resigns.

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Reporting by Alasdair Pal, Uditha Jayasinghe and Channa Kumara in Colombo; Written by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Alex Richardson and Andrew Heavens

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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