COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – As clashes erupted and Sri Lanka emerged from a military curfew on Thursday, word spread that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had chosen a new prime minister in an effort to slow the country’s political and economic unveiling.
“He’s making a deal,” said Nathanielz, an eight-year-old who has become a social media icon in Sri Lanka’s bloated protest movement. He adds to the poison: “There is no agreement.”
Rajapaksa announced on Thursday that Ranil Wickremesinghe, a 73-year-old opposition politician, would replace Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda, the former prime minister who abruptly resigned after his supporters attacked protesters this week, sparking days of public violence, looting and arson.
Vikramasinghe was seen as a relatively safe replacement: he had previously served as Sri Lanka’s prime minister five times. But even before being sworn in for a sixth term, the news drew criticism from protesters, opposition politicians and even the country’s religious leaders, which foreshadowed more political infighting and potentially more instability for such a country.
“Ronil has connections with professional politicians, with alleged corrupt people against whom protesters are furious, and this is exactly the kind of internal, back-scratching deal they are protesting on the streets,” said Alan Kinan, an adviser to International Crisis Group consultancy who specializes in Sri Lankan politics.
Speaking to reporters after his swearing-in, Vikram Singh compared himself to Winston Churchill during World War II, dispelling criticism that he did not have a popular mandate. How did he become the Prime Minister? Because of the crisis. I have done the same, ”said Bikram Singh. “Don’t you want food, medicine, fuel and electricity? I’ll pay for it. “
The island nation of 22 million people is entering a crucial time that could determine whether it falls into a humanitarian crisis. After years of mismanagement and debt-fuel spending, officials announced this month that the country has almost exhausted its foreign exchange – causing energy and power shortages to intensify, even making it harder to import drugs.
Officials and analysts say the country cannot make progress in negotiating with foreign lenders to restructure its debt and secure a bailout if the government is in turmoil.
Vikrama Singh’s appointment may lead to more frustration in the country, but the politically savvy man is seen abroad as a reliable technocrat. The former prime minister, who began his first term in 1993 and served his last term between 2015 and 2019, is seen as having good relations with India, Japan and the United States – the Sri Lankan government hopes the three countries will provide economic assistance. .
“In the eyes of some foreign investors and the government, he is seen as an adult at home, a serious man who can be negotiated,” Kinan said. “If there is a significant inflow of cash that could erode Sri Lanka, it could save Gotabaya for at least some time.”
On Thursday, both prominent Buddhist monks and Catholic cardinals criticized Vikramasinghe’s promotion as “unconstitutional”. Several opposition parties have called for the beleagured PM to resign.
“We have a president who has lost the legitimacy of the people and now a prime minister who has never had the legitimacy of the people,” said MA Sumanthiran, a spokesman for the Tamil National Alliance. “We understand that the country is in a serious economic crisis and will do nothing to prevent its revival, but you cannot suppress democracy in the guise of revival.”
Outside the president’s office, protesters expressed similar frustration and were adamant in their top demand – that Rajapaksa resign.
Shervin Ranatunga, a volunteer in a tent who was handing out free lunch and curry for a long line of protesters and pedestrians, pointed to all the organizations that had come down to the protest site in recent weeks and set up stations, giving it a festive atmosphere. The van, set up by the Red Cross for the injured, was a tent for discussing constitutional issues, a booth set up by artists and photographers, and a truck driven by young lawyers who provided advice to people in trouble with the authorities.
Following the attack on the camp by pro-Rajapaksa mobs on Monday, protesters appear to be more determined than ever. “This city has appeared in a week. Why can’t politicians build Sri Lanka that way?” Said Ranatunga. “We do not want anyone old. We need a new face. ”
Although Colombo was under curfew, there were crowds of people on the waterfront boulevard, united in their accusations against the government. A row of Catholic monks spread their wings beside the dressed Buddhist monks. An alliance of labor organizations set up a tent next to a group representing the deaf. Across the street were communists, disabled elders and students.
Dhanjaga Thalavathatha, an engineering student, recalls coming out almost every day from April 3, the first day of the protest. Like many, he had violated the curfew the day before, despite public warnings from the Ministry of Defense. Shooting if caught for looting or endangering others.
Thalawathatha said he would protest peacefully as long as Rajapaksa remained in office.
He said Vikramasinghe’s appointment “seems to be another attempt to stay in power.” “The whole system is not working.”
Hafil Faris in Colombo contributed to this report.