Sri Lanka's new PM struggles to form unity government

Opposition figure refuses to be finance minister, says he wants govt to resign

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka's new prime minister was struggling yesterday to forge a unity government and forestall an imminent economic collapse after a senior opposition figure refused to helm the finance ministry.

Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in late on Thursday to navigate his country through the worst downturn in its history as an independent nation, with months of shortages and blackouts inflaming public anger.

The 73-year-old insists he has enough support to govern and has approached several potential allies to join his administration.

But frontline opposition lawmaker Harsha de Silva publicly rejected an overture to take charge of the nation's finances and said he would instead push for the government's resignation.

"People are not asking for political games and deals, they want a new system that will safeguard their future," he said in a statement.

Mr de Silva said he was joining "the people's struggle" to topple President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and would not support any political settlement that left the leader in place.

He is a member of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party, the largest opposition grouping in Parliament, which has split on whether to support a unity government without Mr Rajapaksa's resignation.

Huge public demonstrations have for weeks condemned Mr Rajapaksa over his administration's mismanagement of the crisis. Hundreds remain outside his seafront office in the capital Colombo at a protest camp that has for the past month campaigned for him to step down.

"We will stop this struggle when our people get justice," said Mr Chamalage Shivakumar, one of the protesters. "Whoever they appoint as prime minister, we will not stop this struggle until people get relief."

Sri Lanka's central bank chief warned this week that the island nation's economy was just days from "collapse beyond redemption" unless a new government was urgently appointed.

Mr Wickremesinghe warned on Thursday that the dire situation could get worse in the coming months and called for international assistance.

"We want to return the nation to a position where our people will once again have three meals a day," he said.

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president's brother, resigned as prime minister on Monday after his supporters attacked anti-government demonstrators who had been protesting peacefully.

At least nine people were killed and more than 200 injured in ensuing clashes, with dozens of Rajapaksa loyalist homes set on fire by furious mobs.

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa has since been banned by a court from leaving the country and he has taken refuge at the Trincomalee naval base in Sri Lanka's east.

Troops have largely restored order and a nationwide curfew has been in effect for most of the week.

Mr Wickremesinghe is seen as a pro-West free-market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and others smoother.

But it remains to be seen whether a new Cabinet will be enough to calm public anger if President Rajapaksa continues to resist calls for his resignation.

Mr Wickremesinghe yesterday met India's high commissioner to Sri Lanka, his first publicly known contact with a foreign government since his appointment.

"Discussed continued cooperation for economic recovery and stability in Sri Lanka through democratic processes," the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a tweet.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2022, with the headline Sri Lanka's new PM struggles to form unity government. Subscribe