Sri Lanka protesters reject PM's invitation to join reform committees

Soldiers standing guard behind barriers as protesters gathered during anti-government protests in Colombo on May 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - Amid protests and a massive economic crisis, Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed to include protesters in the Parliament's committees on political reforms.

However, initial responses from the spontaneous, leaderless protest groups have dismissed the Prime Minister's May 29 invite, calling it an attempt to co-opt an anti-establishment movement.

Mr Wickremesinghe had invited protesting youth groups to work with the government on systemic reforms that he is proposing to solve the political crisis triggered by the country's economic emergency.

"The youth are calling for a change in the existing system," he said, noting that young people would "be able to learn about problems and provide solutions to them on their own".

"The President will be held accountable to the Parliament," he told Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror, in an attempt to placate the majority of citizens who want to clip the immense powers President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has held on to.

For more than 50 days, thousands of Sri Lankans have been protesting against the mismanagement of funds and disastrous policies by their government that led to acute fuel, food and medicine shortage. Demonstrators have camped outside the presidential secretariat in Colombo, demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa.

The import-dependent island nation's finances are deep in the red. It has announced bankruptcy, defaulted on foreign loans and its dollar reserves have hit rock bottom. The government is now trying to find loans and credit lines from friendly countries like India, China, Japan and Bangladesh.

As citizens faced half-day blackouts in peak summer, and queued up for hours to buy rationed diesel and petrol, frustration had exploded into spontaneous nationwide protests from March that demanded the resignation of all the Rajapaksas and their factions.

The government tried to quell the protests with tear gas, police beatings and political supporters unleashing violence, but that only worsened its unpopularity and triggered greater demands for systemic overhaul, especially from student protesters.

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa finally stepped down last month as prime minister and his rival from the opposition party, Mr Wickremasinghe, was sworn in.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still holding out.

Mr Wickremasinghe's "comprehensive political reform" aims to give lawmakers more power and reduce the influence of the President. He proposes to create 15 parliamentary committees, with four youth representatives appointed in each. Three of them, he said, would be chosen by activist and protest groups.

Some protesters saw the PM's invitation as an olive branch extended to angry demonstrators.

"It does show that unlike the Rajapaksas, Ranil is at least listening to us," said an economist, who was part of the major protests in the Galle Face seaside and who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.

Most other protesters suspected the invite was an attempt to co-opt and weaken the protests. They also feared that it would drive a wedge in the diverse groups that have come together against the corrupt political establishment in a rare moment in Sri Lankan history.

"What Ranil is doing is dodgy. This whole Hunger Games approach is especially terrible - he's saying 'you decide which one of you will be in Parliament'," said Ms Ambika Sathkunanathan, former chief of Sri Lanka's human rights commission.

After some days of debate, protesters who call themselves The People's Aragalaya (the people's struggle), held a press conference on Thursday (June 2) at Galle Face to announce that the movement "has nothing to discuss with the Rajapaksa regime".

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Ms Kavindya Thennakoon, one of the protesters, called the proposal "malicious state-led efforts to discredit the people's movement".

The various groups including Black Cap Movement, Youth for Change and the Inter University Students Federation said there is no solution to the crisis until the President steps down.

Besides political reform, Mr Wickremasinghe, who is also in charge of the finance ministry, has pledged to establish a relief programme and an economic plan which would allow him to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The previous finance minister had begun negotiations that stalled as Sri Lanka changed its Cabinet ministers.

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