Newly elected Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has an unenviable task on hand as the island nation is gripped by an unprecedented economic crisis and social unrest. The immediate challenge is that Wickremesinghe himself is largely seen as part of the problematic political establishment led by the discredited Rajapaksa family. On Friday morning, security forces started to clear the protest site in Colombo. President Wickremesinghe has warned to go hard on the protestors and seems to have kept his words so far. But protestors will come back strongly if he fails to deliver on the economic front.
The tiny nation of 22 million people is in the grip of a spontaneous mass uprising against the Rajapaksa family, responsible for the nation’s economic collapse, marked by shortages of food, fuel, and medicines for months. International aid agencies have said that nearly 7 million Sri Lankans, or one-third of its population, are facing hunger as food supplies have run out, or are out of reach for most. The protestors had stormed the presidential palace early this month, forcing then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country. The social turmoil shows no signs of abating as protestors gathered outside the presidential secretariat in Colombo soon after Parliament elected Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, as the new president. He is widely accused of protecting the embattled Rajapaksa family and during demonstrations last week, crowds set his personal residence on fire and occupied his office. Given the kind of crisis it is facing, Sri Lanka won’t be able to eliminate abuse of power and corruption that landed the nation in such dire straits without a complete overhaul of the political system. Despite the dramatic circumstances, the political class has not risen to the challenge.
Industrial production has plummeted, export earnings have dried up, and government coffers are empty. The country is bankrupt and has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of fuel and is unable to buy the goods it needs from abroad. In May, it failed to make an interest payment on its foreign debt for the first time in its history. The island nation has already started talks with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout and needs to renegotiate its debt agreements with creditors.