Sri Lanka eases curfew as new PM seeks to form govt

Wickremesinghe's task fraught with obstacles as opposition says it will not join Cabinet

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka lifted a nationwide curfew for 12 hours yesterday, further easing tight curbs as new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to form a government.

More than a month of predominantly peaceful protests against the government turned violent last week after supporters of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stormed an anti-government protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo, burning tents and clashing with protesters.

The initial clashes and reprisals against government figures left nine dead and more than 300 injured.

The government lifted the curfew for 12 hours from 6am (8.30am Singapore time) yesterday. A 24-hour curfew imposed on Monday had been lifted for a few hours on Thursday and Friday to allow for purchases of essential supplies.

Mr Rajapaksa stepped down after violence flared on Monday, leaving his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rule on as president.

Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and tax cuts by the populist government, Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Usable foreign reserves have dwindled, and rampant inflation and shortages of fuel have brought thousands onto the streets in protest.

Mr Wickremesinghe had said he will show his majority in Parliament next week, but the task for President Rajapaksa's appointee is fraught with hurdles with the opposition and others saying they would not take on any Cabinet roles.

The main opposition has ruled out supporting him, but several smaller parties have said they would back policies by the new prime minister to stabilise the economy.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party has said it would not join a so-called unity government. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, once allied with the Rajapaksa government but now independent, has also said it will not take any Cabinet roles, a news report stated, indicating that more political uncertainty could lie ahead.

Mr Wickremesinghe can prove a majority only with the support of President Rajapaksa's ruling alliance.

Yesterday, President Rajapaksa reappointed four ministers from the last Cabinet, continuing with Mr G.L. Peiris as foreign minister, Mr Dinesh Gunawardena as minister of public administration, Mr Kanchana Wijesekera heading the power and energy ministry, and Mr Prasanna Ranatunga as minister of urban development and housing.

The new appointees are all from the President's party.

A finance minister, crucial to continue negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, has yet to be selected.

Mr Wickremesinghe commenced discussions on the formation of a foreign consortium for financial assistance, according to a statement from his media unit.

The envoys of India and Japan pledged continued assistance to help stabilise the island nation's economy and to gather support from other nations. The Chinese ambassador also gave assurance of the continuation and review of assistance, while Mr Wickremesinghe alluded to constitutional reforms promised by the President in a meeting with the US envoy.

Mr Wickremesinghe, a five-time prime minister, was appointed to another term late on Thursday.

He was expected to begin appointing ministers before Parliament reconvenes on Tuesday.

The new Premier's United National Party did not win a single seat in the 2020 election, which brought the Rajapaksas back to power, but he was able to return as a lawmaker in 2021 through a system where parties with enough votes can nominate a member under the "national list".

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2022, with the headline Sri Lanka eases curfew as new PM seeks to form govt. Subscribe