At This Crucial Juncture
He is the sole member of his party in the Parliament… He did not win election, but became a member of the Parliament on the basis of overall votes received by his party. However, he became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in May 2022. Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed to lead the tiny island nation during this crisis-period. After the resignation of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as the new PM, once again.
Quite a number of wrong decisions by the Rajapaksa brothers have ruined the Sri Lankan economy in recent times. The South Asian nation, which has failed to repay foreign loans, is facing an acute food crisis, as the price of cooking gas has touched SLR 5,000 per cylinder (USD 1 = SLR 360.00591). Furthermore, there is, seemingly, not a drop of petrol or diesel in the country, no medicine in hospitals, no electricity in residential areas, while the rate of inflation has exceeded 40%. Hence, civilian protests have become increasingly violent.
Many believe that it was difficult to find a better Prime Minister than Wickremesinghe in such trying times. The 73-year-old seasoned politician had served as Sri Lankan Prime Minister five times in the past. There are two clear differences between his previous terms and the Gotabaya-Mahinda Era, and those are very important. Firstly, Wickremesinghe has a good relationship with the Western world. As he has prior experience of working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Wickremesinghe knows how to negotiate with global lenders. Everybody knows that it would not be possible for Colombo to get rid of this financial and political turmoil without the help of global lenders. Immediately after becoming the Prime Minister for the sixth time, he hinted that his government would implement economic reform programmes. Wickremesinghe also announced that the government would soon privatise the State-owned airline company.
Secondly, Wickremesinghe is the ideal person to balance Sri Lanka’s ties with neighbouring India and China. Although the Rajapaksa brothers maintained cordial ties with Beijing, Sri Lanka moved away from other countries, including India, under their leadership. The West is yet to come forward to help Sri Lanka tackle the financial crisis due to Colombo’s proximity with Beijing. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe has always maintained cordial ties with India. He visited New Delhi four times between 2016 and 2018. During his previous term as Prime Minister, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi had arrived in Sri Lanka twice. So, he could easily seek help from India and the West. The Modi Administration recently sent relief supplies, including 9000mt of rice, 50mt of milk powder and 25mt of drugs and medical supplies (worth SLR 2 billion), to Sri Lanka. India also extended a USD 1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka on March 17 to help the island nation deal with the economic crisis.
There are also internal reasons for Wickremesinghe’s acceptance as the PM. He is popularly known as a liberal politician, as far as the minority Tamil Issue is concerned. During his prime ministership, the Government of Sri Lanka had begun Peace Talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, a Tamil militant organisation that was based in the northeastern part of the country). He had even offered to share political power with Tamil militants. From Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa, many Sri Lankan politicians have criticised Wickremesinghe’s soft attitude towards Tamils at various times. However, Wickremesinghe has become popular once again, as the acceptance of democracy and tolerance by the common people of Sri Lanka has suddenly increased a lot during this crisis period.
After taking charge as the Prime Minister for the sixth time on May 12 (2022), Wickremesinghe expressed hope that he could rescue Sri Lanka from the crisis. He promised to make sure that the banking system of Sri Lanka does not follow the path of 20th Century Greece or Indonesia. He further announced that Colombo would import a huge amount of chemical fertilisers for the coming agricultural season. When asked whether his government would welcome foreign tourists, Wickremesinghe said that adventure-lovers could visit the island.
It is evident in his reply that the newly appointed Prime Minister is under tremendous pressure, and that is quite natural.
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