Sri Lanka’s new PM wins support for ‘economic war cabinet’

Sri Lanka's prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has struggled to form a "unity government" since he was appointed. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka’s new prime minister won crucial support from two main opposition parties on Monday (May 16), easing the pressure on the ruling Rajapaksa clan in the face of the island’s worsening economic crisis.

But highlighting the dire situation still facing Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, Ranil Wickremesinghe said the country had run out of petrol and that the “next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives”.

“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public,” Mr Wickremesinghe said in an address to the nation.

The main opposition SJB party appeared to drop its demands that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should step down before backing a coalition to manage the crumbling economy.

The SJB, or Samagi Jana Balawegaya, declined to join a unity government led by Mr Wickremesinghe, but said it would “unconditionally support the positive efforts to revive the economy”.

“It is important to save the country from the grave economic crisis,” it said in a brief statement.

And the second-largest opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), said it would join the cabinet.

Official sources said the full Cabinet was likely to be sworn in ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary session, the first since the 73-year-old Wickremesinghe's appointment.

Four ministers were sworn in on Saturday, all from Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) party.

However, there is no finance minister yet, and it is widely expected that the prime minister will retain the crucial portfolio to lead ongoing negotiations with the IMF for an urgent bailout.

Mr Wickremesinghe has also called for international support.

He held talks on Sunday with World Bank and Asian Development Bank representatives in Colombo focusing on the issues facing the supply of medicines, food, fuel and fertiliser, his office said in a statement.

"While explaining that discussions have been positive, the Prime Minister stated that the government is facing the immediate challenge of securing funds to pay for the fuel requirement for this coming week," the statement said.

"Due to the dollar shortages in the banks, the government is now exploring other options of securing the necessary funding."

Shortages of food, fuel and medicines, along with record inflation and lengthy blackouts, have brought severe hardships to the country's 22 million people.

Protesters across the Buddhist-majority nation have for weeks demanded the resignation of President Rajapaksa over Sri Lanka's worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

The appointment of Mr Wickremesinghe has so far failed to quell public anger at the government for bringing Sri Lanka to the brink of economic collapse.

Thousands continue to protest outside the president's sea-front office demanding his resignation where they have been since April 9.

Long queues stretched outside the few fuel stations that were still open on Monday, a Buddhist holiday, as motorists waited for rationed petrol.

Mr Wickremesinghe said on Monday that Sri Lanka had no dollars to finance essential imports with three oil tankers were waiting off Colombo to be paid before they would unload.

He added that the country has run out of 14 essential drugs, including anti-rabies vaccines. The state’s health ministry has not paid its suppliers of medicines for four months and has now been blacklisted, he added.

He also warned that fuel and electricity tariffs will be raised substantially and his government will also sell off its loss-making national airline.

However, he urged people to “patiently bear the next couple of months” and vowed he could overcome the crisis.

A diesel shipment using an Indian credit line arrived in the country on Sunday, but is yet to be distributed across the island, leading to the lengthy queues in several places.

"Request the public not to queue up or top up in the next three days until the 1,190 fuel station deliveries have been completed," Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said on Monday.

Heavily armed troops were still patrolling the streets with a state of emergency still in effect after at least nine people were killed in violence last week.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.