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'Aim is to save crisis-hit Sri Lanka, not a family', says PM Wickremesinghe as he eyes curbing President's power

The 73-year-old United National Party (UNP) leader also said that US dollars will be sourced from open markets to pay for petrol, crude, furnace oil shipments currently in Sri Lankan waters.

Published: 16th May 2022 09:17 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2022 09:17 PM   |  A+A-

Members of Socialist Youth Union shout slogans and march towards Sri Lanka's police headquarters carrying a banner demanding the arrest of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapkasa. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's newly-appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday warned that next two months would be the toughest and said his aim is to save the country from the ongoing economic crisis, and not a person, family or group, in an apparent reference to the Rajapaksa family and its former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In his first televised address to the nation after becoming the prime minister last week, the 73-year-old United National Party (UNP) leader also said that US dollars will be sourced from open markets to pay for petrol, crude, furnace oil shipments currently in Sri Lankan waters.

Wickremesinghe was appointed as Sri Lanka's 26th prime minister on Thursday as the country was without a government since Monday when prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after violence erupted following an attack on the anti-government protesters by his supporters.

"I am undertaking a dangerous challenge. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation," Wickremesinghe said.

He warned that next two months would be the toughest in the ongoing economic crisis.

"The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives. We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period," he said while addressing the nation on the current crisis.

Wickremesinghe said that at present the Sri Lankan economy is extremely precarious and Colombo must obtain USD 75 million within the next couple of days to ease the current queues for essentials.

"At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day," he said, adding that diesel shortages would be eased thanks to the Indian credit line.

"Due to the diesel shipment that arrived yesterday, the lack of diesel will be resolved to some extent. Under the Indian credit line, two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on the 18th May and 1st June. In addition, two petrol shipments are expected on 18th and 29th May," he said.

"For over 40 days 3 ships with crude oil and furnace oil have been anchored within the maritime zone of Sri Lanka. We are working to obtain dollars in the open market to pay for these shipments," he added.

He said a quarter of electricity in Lanka is generated through oil.

Therefore, there is a possibility that the daily power outages will increase to 15 hours a day.

"However, we have already obtained money to avert this crisis," he said.

The Prime Minister said the entire local banking system is suffering from the dollar shortages.

He said another grave concern is the lack of medicine.

"There is a severe shortage of a number of medicines including medicine required for heart disease as well as surgical equipment. Payments have not been made for four months to suppliers of medicine, medical equipment, and food for patients. The payment owed to them amounts to SLR 34 billion," he said.

The state had been unable to pay for medicine supplies over four months now.

"In the short term, we will have to face an even more difficult time period. There is a possibility that inflation will increase further," he said.

He said he would reluctantly have to permit money printing in order to pay public service salaries.

"I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying".

He said a relief budget will be introduced to replace the 2022 Development Budget.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said he would propose to privatise state carrier SriLankan Airlines, which is making massive losses at present.

SriLankan Airlines suffered a loss of Rs.45 billion in 2021 alone.

By March 31st, 2022, the total loss was Rs.372 billion.

"Even if we privatise SriLankan Airlines, we will have to incur the losses. These losses have to be borne also by the innocent people who have never stepped inside a plane," said the Prime Minister.

He thanked the opposition leader and the leaders of the political parties who replied to the letters that he sent them informing them of the current situation.

"We must immediately establish a national assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis.

This will enable us to discuss with all parties and to arrive at decisions for short-, medium-, and long-term action plans that will enable us to rebuild our nation within a specified time frame," he added.

Sri Lanka is going through the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

A crippling shortage of foreign reserves has led to long queues for fuel, cooking gas and other essentials while power cuts and soaring food prices heaped misery on the people.

The economic crisis also triggered a political crisis in Sri Lanka and a demand for the resignation of the powerful Rajapaksas.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has refused to quit, appointed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister last week and said a young Cabinet under him would introduce key constitutional reforms to curb his powers, amid protests over the nation's worst economic crisis that ousted his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa who is under protection at a naval base following violent attacks on his aides.

Sri Lanka's main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) on Monday said it would offer conditional support to the interim all-party government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to help tackle the country's crippling economic and political crisis.

Wickremesinghe, the United National Party (UNP) leader was appointed as Sri Lanka's 26th prime minister on Thursday as the country was without a government since Monday when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's elder brother and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after violence erupted following an attack on the anti-government protesters by his supporters.

"As a responsible political party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya believes saving the country from the current crisis is of the utmost importance," the SJB said in a statement.

"Accordingly, without taking any portfolio and on behalf of the betterment of the country, SJB in its parliamentary group discussion today decided to fully support the current government in its efforts on economic recovery," it said.

But the support came with certain riders.

"If the government groups try to accommodate defections from SJB or connect SJB parliamentarians for activities that are against the SJB principles, the parliamentary group has decided to unconditionally withdraw this support," it added.

The SJB had earlier declined to support Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister of the interim all-party government, saying the 73-year-old had no mandate since he was a solo representative of his party in the 225-member Parliament.

Following his appointment last week, Wickremesinghe wrote to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa urging for bipartisanship.

"We all know very well that Sri Lanka is facing a colossal economic, social, and political crisis. It is irrefutable that we must all unite to end this crisis that's intensifying every day and to establish a stable economy. All of us have a historic responsibility to secure the future of the next generation, given that our actions in this moment will decide the path of this country," Wickremesinghe wrote.

SJB's conditional support notwithstanding, Wickremesinghe on Monday said that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to curb the presidential powers will be discussed with the Attorney General's Department on Monday so that it can be submitted to the Cabinet for approval.

The 21st Amendment is expected to annul the 20A which gave unfettered powers to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after abolishing the 19th Amendment which had made Parliament powerful over the president.

"21st Amendment: This will be taken up for discussion with the Attorney General's Department tomorrow (Monday) and then be presented to Cabinet for approval," Wickremesinghe tweeted.

The powerful Rajapaksa family tightened their grip on power after their massive victory in the general elections in August 2020, which allowed them to amend the Constitution to restore presidential powers and install close family members in key positions.

In his 2019 presidential bid, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a convincing mandate for a presidency during which he sought full presidential powers over Parliament.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe, who on Sunday held discussions with representatives of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank on the current economic crisis in the country, said the two financial institutions have pledged support to assist in procuring essential items like medicine, food and fertilisers.

Sri Lanka is grappling with an unprecedented economic turmoil since its independence from Britain in 1948.

A crippling shortage of foreign reserves has led to long queues for fuel, cooking gas and other essentials while power cuts and soaring food prices heaped misery on the citizens.

The economic crisis has also triggered a political crisis in Sri Lanka and a demand for the resignation of the powerful Rajapaksas from all government positions.

Wickremesinghe has said that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution to curb the presidential powers will be discussed with the Attorney General's Department on Monday so that it can be submitted to the Cabinet for approval.

The 21st Amendment is expected to annul the 20A which gave unfettered powers to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after abolishing the 19th Amendment which had made Parliament powerful over the president.

The first Cabinet meeting was held on Sunday.

Special attention was paid to fuel imports at the meeting.

"21st Amendment: This will be taken up for discussion with the Attorney General's Department tomorrow (Monday) and then be presented to Cabinet for approval," Wickremesinghe tweeted.

The powerful Rajapaksa family tightened their grip on power after their massive victory in the general elections in August 2020, which allowed them to amend the Constitution to restore presidential powers and install close family members in key positions.

In his 2019 presidential bid, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a convincing mandate for a presidency during which he sought full presidential powers over Parliament.

Wickremesinghe, who on Sunday held discussions with representatives of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank on the current economic crisis in the country, said the two financial institutions have pledged support to assist in procuring essential items like medicine, food and fertiliser.

He also outlined a plan to fulfil fuel requirements.

"Given the dollar scarcity at banks, we are exploring other options of securing the necessary funds to pay for the coming week's fuel requirements," he tweeted.

"The government has secured payments for an LP Gas consignment which will begin to unload and distribute as early as possible," he said.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is scheduled to make a special statement on Monday, his office said.

A senior spokesman said the aim was to educate the public on the current political and economic situation in the country.

According to Daily Mirror, an online news portal, a few more Cabinet ministers of the new government are slated to be sworn-in on Monday.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is planning for the appointment of 18 ministers in addition to himself and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it said.

Besides, there will be 30 state ministers.

Four ministers have already been sworn-in.

According to the report, ten slots will be reserved for lawmakers of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Sri Lanka is grappling with an unprecedented economic turmoil since its independence from Britain in 1948.

A crippling shortage of foreign reserves has led to long queues for fuel, cooking gas and other essentials while power cuts and soaring food prices heaped misery on the people.

The economic crisis also triggered a political crisis in Sri Lanka and a demand for the resignation of the powerful Rajapaksas.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sacked his Cabinet and appointed a younger Cabinet as a response to the demand for his resignation.

A continuous protest opposite his secretariat has now gone on for well over a month.

Last Monday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa's elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as the prime minister to make way for the president to appoint an interim all political party government.

Wickremesinghe was appointed the country's new prime minister on Thursday.



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