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I can turn around Sri Lanka’s economy: PM Ranil Wickremesinghe | Politics News


Colombo, Sri Lanka – Ranil Wickremesinghe, the newly appointed prime minister of crisis-stricken Sri Lanka, said he was confident he could turn the economy around – but warned it would take 18 months before stability returned.

Wickremesinghe told Al Jazeera last week: “The year 2023 will be difficult, but by 2024 everything will be good.” [Thursday] in a wide-ranging interview at his official residence in the capital Colombo.

The 73-year-old leader, who became prime minister for the sixth time in May, says he took the job under unusual circumstances.

“We’ve had almost two days without the government; things are getting out of control,” he said, recalling mass protests over fuel and electricity shortages that forced Mahinda Rajapaksa, his predecessor and brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resignation.

“I thought ‘the situation is terrible, it’s your country, so you can’t wonder if you’ll succeed or not. You take it over and work to succeed,” said Wickremesinghe, who met the president at the request of several MPs from Sri Lanka’s ruling party Podujana Peramuna.

“I am confident that I can turn the economy around,” he said.

The island nation of 22 million people has come to a virtual standstill due to severe shortages of fuel and essential commodities such as food and medicine, as the government runs out of foreign exchange reserves to import goods. this early year.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt in April, and its usable foreign exchange reserves are so low that the country struggles to cover demands from international markets.

In Colombo, the streets were almost empty of people. Some people could be seen queuing up near some gas stations that were still open, but educational institutions, businesses and government offices remained closed. Hotels in the capital – once packed with tourists – are struggling to stay afloat due to a sharp drop in visitor numbers.

The worst crisis since independence in 1948

Wickremesinghe, who has been tasked with getting the country out of its worst crisis since independence in 1948, said there would be a petrol shortage until at least July 22, when the next shipment is expected.

“We are buying fuel using Indian lines of credit or foreign exchanges that we get from remittances. Its [remittances] a small amount, but nevertheless, sometimes we get a billion dollars[s] or a billion and a half. The rest of the reserve from what we got from creditors has been destroyed,” he said.

Office of the President of Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, greets Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during the following swearing-in ceremony
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, greets Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during his swearing-in ceremony on May 25 [Sri Lankan President’s Office via AP]

Food inflation has risen to nearly 60%, while the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by more than 80% since March, further eroding people’s purchasing power.

Last month, the prime minister said the economy had “collapsed”.

“It’s a big hit to the economy and it’s causing a lot of hardship for people… We’re taking steps…especially to get gas, which will be available in the next few days,” he said. told Al Jazeera, additional supplies of diesel and oil furnaces have also been made.

“The point is gasoline…and that’s going to take some time.”

Furthermore, the Prime Minister added that a gas deal has been secured, with most funding coming from the World Bank, which will secure supply for the next four months.

Sri Lanka has held talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as it seeks to weather the financial turmoil caused by decades of import-oriented policies, as well as manage weak economic management – including a thoughtless ban on fertilizers. and tax-free for corporations and the wealthy, under a government dominated by the Rajapaksa family.

“We seem to have reached an agreement with the IMF at the staff level. And this is necessary to stabilize the economy,” Wickremesinghe said, adding that he would reveal more details in parliament this week.

The Prime Minister also said his government is planning to provide an interim budget, as much as possible in August.

Calling for political reform

Meanwhile, protesters have camped at Galle Face in Colombo since April and demanded the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blaming him and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for bringing the economy up .

They also called for the removal of the executive presidency as part of a push for political reform.

Wickremesinghe said he supported the protesters’ demand for a change in the political system.

“I don’t think the protesters have a lot of demands; they just want a change,” he said. “It is not just about abolishing the office of executive chairman. How do you make parliament strong? “

“Young people… feel that they have been abandoned by the current system and that is a logical point they have made and the parties must be more open,” added Wickremesinghe. He said that young people need to be grounded in politics so that they can shape the future of the country.

“I have made several proposals regarding changes to the parliamentary structure, and have passed it on to the former President, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya; His report is already available, both will be brought before parliament, probably on Wednesday,” Wickremesinghe said.

He has proposed strengthening parliamentary oversight and stakeholder participation in governance.

The veteran leader, who is considered to have good relations with the West, said he has managed to gain the support of a diverse group of countries, including India, China, Japan and the United States. and the United Kingdom, as well as from the Member States of the European Union.

“The main players are Japan, India and China. Japan has expressed interest in having Tokyo as the donor conference venue,” said the Prime Minister.

“This will be a one-of-a-kind conference with the participation of two QUAD members – India and Japan – and China, the organization that runs the Global Infrastructure Project Initiative,” he said. Belt and Road.

“So this is going to be a geopolitical conference of interest,” he said, adding that he had spoken to both India and China – regional rivals who have been jostling for get a foothold in Sri Lanka.

‘India has always been a big player’

India has provided Sri Lanka with much-needed lines of credit to purchase fuel.

“India has always been a big player. They cannot have unrest on their doorstep. The instability in Sri Lanka is not in India’s interest,” Wickremesinghe said.

However, some foreign policy analysts have pointed out that China, Sri Lanka’s third largest lender, has been slow to respond to the crisis in the island nation. They say Beijing is upset that the Rajapaksa government canceled infrastructure projects by Chinese companies last year.

Sri Lankan protests
Protesters have demanded the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blaming him for the economic fallout. [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

But Wickremesinghe denies any strain in relations with China.

“I have been talking to China since I took over. Contracts with Chinese companies have been canceled, but the government has previously canceled contracts with Japanese companies, MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] and contracts with India. So in a way, the old government was very hands-on,” he said, with a wry smile. The MCC is a program run by the US government through which it funds countries for infrastructure projects.

The Prime Minister also commented on the recent controversy over awarding a wind energy project to India’s Adani Group.

“Adani has been here for a while. They actually got here first on this East Wharf issue, where Japan and India met, and the Indians nominated Adani. But the government then canceled it. Unlike the Japanese who returned home, Adani stayed. He [Adani] got hold of John Keells and acquired the West Terminal. So he knows how to invest in Sri Lanka.

“He [Adani] no need to ask [Indian] Prime minister [Narendra] Modi,” he said of allegations that Modi pressured Gotabaya Rajapaksa to hand over the wind energy project to Adani, who is considered close to the Indian prime minister.

“I saw the proposal [by Adani] And that’s a good proposition, I must say. They will invest $500 million. It will be part of energy exports to India. That’s good because we have a lot of power,” Wickremesinghe said.

#GoHomeGota

Members of civil society and organizers of the protest movement, known as #GoHomeGota, have accused Wickremesinghe of doing little to ease the fuel and food crisis nearly two months since he was elected. take over as prime minister.

They plan to hold nationwide rallies on July 9 to mark three months since the start of the #GoHomeGota protests.

Protesters say severe shortages continue, affecting the livelihoods and nutrition of millions.

UN agencies, including the World Food Program, say 5.7 million Sri Lankans need humanitarian assistance, with 4.9 million facing food insecurity.

Tricycles line up to buy gas in Colombo, Sri Lanka
The island nation of 22 million people has come to a virtual standstill due to severe shortages of fuel and essential goods such as food and medicine. [Jonathan Wijayaratne/Bloomberg]

Wickremesinghe acknowledged there had been a drop in nutritional standards and said his government had set up a food security program.

“We plan to allocate around 200 billion rupees [$560m] from the interim welfare budget. We’ve got the money ready. I hope that will be enough with the food program we are planning.

“I don’t want anyone to starve. People have started some community kitchens in Colombo, and this could spread. But we are taking steps so that no one goes hungry.”

Wickremesinghe said he planned to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in food from 2023 onward, amid fears of a global food crisis next year as the war in Ukraine continues.

He said the farming season from November [2021] January-February 2022 was a failure as Sri Lanka had no fertilizer – a shortage also affected the June-September crop.

“We are doing our best to get enough capital so we can start the next season from October to November to around January to February 2023. We need around $500-600 million. Once we get fertilizer, seeds and other chemicals, and if there is no drought, then we will be self-sufficient in food from 2023,” he said.

Fear of Islam

The Prime Minister also said that Islamophobia has no place in Sri Lanka. The government led by Rajapaksas has been accused of criminalizing Muslims, especially after the deadly attacks on Easter Sunday 2019 and also during the coronavirus pandemic.

Wickremesinghe welcomes the lifting of a ban last week on Qatar Charity, Qatar’s largest NGO, imposed following a bombing in April 2019 that killed 256 people.

Members of Sri Lanka's Muslim religious organization Thawheed Jamaath, hold banners during a protest against the cremation of Covid-19 Muslim victims near the Presidential Office in Colombo
Sri Lankan government led by Rajapaksas accused of Islamic superstition following deadly attacks on Easter Sunday [File: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA]

In July last year, the former interior minister falsely claimed to parliament that the Qatar Charities – which works with many of the UN’s humanitarian agencies – had been banned by the United Nations.

“I’m glad it happened,” Wickremesinghe said, referring to the lifting of the ban on the Qatar Charity. “It will also happen with other bans.”

He said the lifting of the ban had been delayed due to COVID-19 and other issues, but many experts say the return of the Sri Lankan Government comes as the country is desperately looking to other countries. The Gulf is rich in energy to fuel.

“We are reaching out to the Middle Eastern countries,” Wickremesinghe said, days after the Sri Lankan Minister of Energy and Power visited Doha, the capital of Qatar.



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