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Wickremesinghe chose the Sri Lankan Prime Minister to ease the crisis

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s former five-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reappointed Thursday in an effort to bring stability to the island nation, engulfed in political and economic crisis.

Wickremesinghe was sworn in before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a ceremony at the President’s residence. Protesters blocked the entrance to the president’s office for more than a month.

The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajakapsa, resigned as prime minister on Monday following violent attacks by supporters against peaceful anti-government protesters. His resignation automatically dissolved the Cabinet, leaving an administrative vacuum.

The president’s selection of Wickremesinghe is seen as an attempt to end the violence sparked by the crisis and restore international credibility as the government negotiates a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

Authorities on Wednesday deployed armored vehicles and troops to the streets of the capital after attacks on protesters sparked a wave of violence across the country. Nine people died and more than 200 were injured.

Security forces have been ordered to shoot those suspected of taking part in the violence, as sporadic acts of arson and vandalism continue despite a strict nationwide curfew that began on Monday evening.

For weeks, protesters have demanded that the two Rajapaksas resign over a debt crisis that nearly bankrupted the country and caused severe shortages of fuel, food and other essentials.

Some opposition politicians and religious leaders opposed Wickremesinghe’s appointment, saying the people wanted sweeping reforms.

Opposition MP Anura Dissananayake said choosing Wickremesinghe as president was more about protecting him and his family from public anger over his role in the economic crisis than about solving the country’s problems.

When he served as foreign minister from 2015 to 2019, Wickremesinghe was accused of shielding the powerful Rajapaksa family from allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing.

Buddhist and Catholic clergy also opposed the selection of Wickremesinghe.

“This decision was taken in complete disregard of the aspirations of the people who are protesting today. Protests can only get worse with this decision,” said Rev. Omalpe Sobitha, a veteran Buddhist monk.

The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said that for the country to come out of its crisis, “we need a complete change of the system”.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended repayments of $7 billion in foreign loans due this year. The IMF said any short- or long-term aid depended on the outcome of talks with creditors on loan restructuring. Sri Lanka must repay about $25 billion in foreign loans by 2026 out of a current total external debt of $51 billion.

The Ministry of Finance said earlier this month that the country’s usable foreign exchange reserves had fallen to just $25 million.

The shortage of foreign currency has led to a sharp drop in imports, leading to severe shortages of essentials such as fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine. For months, people have had to line up to buy limited supplies, and many have come away empty-handed.

The new prime minister will likely present a Cabinet list to the president for nomination, a power given to him by the constitution. If there are objections to the Prime Minister or the new Cabinet, lawmakers can submit a motion of no confidence to the Speaker of the House when the body reconvenes on Tuesday. The motion would then be debated and voted on.

Wickremesinghe, 73, has served in parliament for 45 years. His political party split in 2020 amid a leadership crisis and most senior members left to form a new party, which is currently the main opposition in the country.

Wickremesinghe’s reputation was tarnished during his previous term as prime minister, when he found himself in a difficult power-sharing deal with President Maithripala Sirisena. The conflict and a breakdown in communication between him and Sirisena have been blamed for intelligence lapses that led to the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings that killed more than 260 people.

He was also accused of shielding a friend he appointed as head of the Central Bank from insider trading allegations.

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