Sri Lanka has a new president, but here’s why many continue to protest: NPR


Protesters shout anti-government slogans outside the president’s office as parliament votes on Wednesday to elect the new president in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP


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Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

Protesters shout anti-government slogans outside the president’s office as parliament votes on Wednesday to elect the new president in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lanka’s parliament elected longtime politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s new president in a secret ballot on Wednesday. He previously served as prime minister to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country a week ago after months of protests demanding his resignation.

Due to Wickremesinghe’s close association with the former president, scores of protesters entered and burned down his house last week, and also called on him to step down.

Wickremesinghe takes office as the Sri Lankan economy continues to face runaway inflation and shortages of essentials like food, fuel and medicine. Many Sri Lankans are still queuing for hours to buy basic supplies, often at prices that have doubled or tripled in recent months. The most recent analysis by the World Food Program found that 86% of families were skipping meals, eating less or buying less good food.

Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe greeted large supporters as he arrived at a Buddhist temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP


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Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe greeted large supporters as he arrived at a Buddhist temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lankan historian from the University of Oxford, Shamara Wettimuny, said the regime of former President Rajapaksa was: “To put it bluntly, a short-lived train wreck”.

She spoke with All things Considered about what Sri Lankans want from the new administration and what has led to this moment.

Interview Highlights

On whether Wickremesinghe has signaled plans to stem the country’s economic crisis

He’s made some progress in terms of negotiating with the IMF, which we’re hoping to get some sort of bailout from, and he’s been working to try to improve our fuel situation. But these changes are yet to be felt on the ground. Walking around Colombo right now, all you see are lines of cars snaking around town, where people have been queuing for days to get gas. The crisis is therefore still very real and remains to be resolved.

On the political career of the former president of Sri Lanka, now in exile

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was new to electoral politics. He has a military background, and he later served as Defense Secretary under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government between 2005 and 2015.

The Rajapaksa government during the civil war is widely seen as ruthless in ending a conflict that has lasted more than 30 years, but there are still huge accountability gaps. The end of the war was bloody and many Tamils ​​were killed or disappeared. And these families of the disappeared are still looking for answers.

His campaign to run for president in 2019 was his first election campaign.

It was, to put it bluntly, a short-lived train accident. He came to power in November 2019 on a platform of economic progress, as well as national security. And the reality is that he delivered neither.

I must point out that his “national security” policy actually referred to the persecution of minorities, the Muslim minority in particular… in response to the Islamist Easter Sunday attacks that took place in Sri Lanka in April 2019.

However, after the outbreak of COVID, the economy took a hit. Last year, one of the biggest mistakes made by this former president was to introduce, overnight, a ban on fertilizers and… an organic fertilizer policy. But with little or no preparation, the farmers were simply unprepared and our harvest suffered. This failed fertilizer policy is part of the reason we are currently facing huge food shortages and it has compounded the crisis we are currently experiencing.

Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

A protester waves a national flag and shouts slogans calling on President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down during a protest at the presidential secretariat premises on Wednesday.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP


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Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

A protester waves a national flag and shouts slogans calling on President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down during a protest at the presidential secretariat premises on Wednesday.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

On where this regime drew support from within Sri Lankan society

The regime under Gotabaya Rajapaksa did win the support of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. The Sinhalese [are] the largest ethnic community, which overwhelmingly identifies as Buddhist, they make up about 70% of the population.

He came to power in November 2019, vowing to bring them economic prosperity, but also to protect them from minorities. His election campaign was undeniably one that said he would put minorities in their place.

On what led to President Rajapaksa’s demands for resignation

The economy is probably the biggest issue. In terms of agriculture, the failure of the fertilizer policy means that we really face huge food shortages. We have huge food price inflation, and inflation more generally. And more recently we have had long power outages.

So, for example, between March and April, some people experienced power outages of up to 10 hours. In recent months there have been massive fuel and gas shortages with people unable to find the gas needed for cooking. Many families reported that they had been reduced to one meal a day.

Whether she thinks the diverse coalition behind the protests will persist

The demonstrators united around this idea which in Sinhalese is called “aragalaya”, it means “the struggle”.

They responded to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as president and said they saw him as an illegitimate president and would continue the protest. There will be others, of course, across Sri Lanka who will say “give Ranil a chance to do the job he has done. He has seen success in terms of economic policies in the past, maybe is he one of the people who can actually help us navigate this path.”

But no, I don’t see the protests going away anytime soon.

On how Ranil Wickremesinghe could rule as the country’s next president

Starting on a negative note, since becoming interim president following the resignation of President Rajapaksa, he has instituted a curfew and declared a state of emergency.

Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

Protesters shout slogans calling on President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down on Wednesday.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP


hide caption

toggle caption

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Sri Lanka has a new president, but here's why many continue to protest: NPR

Protesters shout slogans calling on President-elect Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down on Wednesday.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Now many people will say that the only emergency is the food crisis and the energy crisis. But that does not justify the urgency he declared. And so much of the public sees the emergency that he declared and the regulations that were issued under the emergency as [a means] to protect themselves and MPs against whom the public is protesting. So it’s really not a very encouraging sign.

However, it is in talks with the IMF. Much of the international community has agreed to work with Wickremesinghe. And so, I guess he will prioritize the economic sector in the future.

On whether recent protests have overcome Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide

I’m afraid to say that the ethnic divide is unlikely to be overcome so soon.

Many Sinhalese protesting in the streets at the moment have not come out because they disapprove of the human rights abuses that have taken place under various Rajapaksa governments.

They are there mainly for economic reasons. And that’s one of the reasons why many minorities have been skeptical about joining the protests, even if they did participate. And so I’m afraid to say that once the immediate economic crisis is resolved, many people suspect that the Sinhalese will once again go home and stop supporting demands for accountability and justice, and other grievances held by minorities who also presented as part of the protests.


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