Colombia, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s interim president Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the country’s previous administration was “hiding facts” about its crippling financial crisis.
Former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not tell the truth that Sri Lanka was ‘bankrupt’ and ‘should go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’, Wickremesinghe told CNN from the parliament of the country’s administrative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, on Monday.
“I would like to tell people I know what they are suffering,” he added. ” We are leaving again. We have to get up by the boots. We don’t need five years or 10 years. By the end of next year, let’s start to stabilize, and certainly by 2024, let’s have a functioning economy that will start to grow.
Wickremesinghe’s exclusive interview with CNN was his first with an international news agency since he was named interim president by former leader Rajapaksa, who fled the crisis-ridden country last week.
Wickremesinghe added that he had spoken to Rajapaksa since he fled Sri Lanka for the Maldives and then traveled to Singapore. However, Wickremesinghe said he did not know if the former leader was still in Singapore or elsewhere.
Wickremesinghe is now in the running to be Sri Lanka’s next president, with parliament due to elect a new leader on Wednesday.
The six-time former prime minister, backed by Sri Lanka’s ruling political party Podujana Peramuna, will face at least three other candidates.
But Wickremesinghe’s appointment threatened to inflame an already volatile situation in the South Asian nation of 22 million.
Since March, Sri Lanka has been brought to its knees by a growing economic crisis that has left the country struggling to buy essential imports including fuel, food and medicine.
Protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of the country’s leaders and last week appeared to have scored a victory when Rajapaksa vowed to quit and then fled the country after thousands of protesters stormed his residence and some swam in its pool. Wickremesinghe’s private residence was set on fire by angry protesters shortly afterwards.
Wickremesinghe – prime minister before Rajapaksa’s resignation – has vowed to step down to make way for a unity government.
He told CNN that his burned home and much of its contents were not salvageable.
He lost more than 4,000 pounds, some dating back centuries, Wickremesinghe said. A 125-year-old piano was also destroyed in the fire, he added.
But despite that, on Monday he reiterated his desire to compete for the top spot, telling CNN he was “not the same administration.”
“I’m not the same anymore, people know that,” he said. “I came here to manage the economy.”
When asked why he wanted to be president and become another potential target, Wickremesinghe said, “I don’t want this to happen in the country. What happened to me, I don’t want others to suffer… I certainly don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
Meanwhile, life for Sri Lankans remains chaotic as they weather the country’s crippling crisis.
People continue to line up outside petrol stations for hours, if not days, in the desperate hope of buying fuel. Many local businesses are closed and supermarket shelves are increasingly empty.
As anger continues to mount, Wickremesinghe said people can protest “peacefully”.
“Do not prevent parliamentarians and parliament from fulfilling their duty,” he said.
Wickremesinghe had declared a nationwide state of emergency from Monday, in a bid to quell any possible social unrest ahead of the presidential vote in parliament on July 20.
“We try to prevent (the police and the army) from using weapons,” Wickremesinghe said. “They were attacked on some occasions, but we still told them to do their best not to use weapons.”
But Wickremesinghe said he could “understand what the (people of Sri Lanka) are going through”.
“I told them there had been three bad weeks… And the whole system had broken down,” he said. “We weren’t going to have petrol, we weren’t going to have diesel. It was bad.”
Wickremesinghe said he would not let protesters stop parliament from voting on Wednesday, or allow more buildings to be stormed.
“There must be law and order in the country,” he said.