Colombo, May 16 (EFE).- Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Monday painted a bleak picture of the country’s economy and warned the worst was yet to come amid unrelenting unrest on the streets of the cash-strapped nation.
Wickremesinghe sought the cooperation of the island’s 22 million people, as hundreds gathered in front of a rail hub in the capital Colombo, demanding the arrest of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters over clashes that killed nine people last week.
The Indian Ocean island nation is in the middle of its worst economic crisis since independence from Great Britain in 1948, causing unprecedented inflation rates and shortages of fuel and essential supplies that have brought thousands of protesters onto the streets.
More than a month of peaceful anti-government protests turned violent on May 9 after supporters of the ex-prime minister stormed an anti-government protest camp in Colombo, who set their tents on fire and clashed with demonstrators.
The clashes also left nearly 300 injured and brought Mahinda Rajapaksa, once a formidable politician, down as the prime minister.
The island continues to be in the throes of its economic crisis as residents struggle to make ends meet. Long queues for fuel and cooking gas continue in many parts of the country.
Wickremesinghe said the government struggled to find sufficient foreign currency to import essential goods, including fuel, food, and medicine.
He urged Sri Lankans to prepare for “some sacrifices and face the challenges” in the coming months.
“I am undertaking a dangerous challenge,” he said, drawing a reference from Caucasian Chalk Circle, a 1944 play by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, to illustrate the challenging task ahead.
“In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Grusha crossed the broken rope bridge carrying a child that was not her own. This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed.”
Wickremesinghe said it had become a challenge for the treasury to raise $1 million, while the finance ministry found it hard to raise $5 million to import gas.
The prime minister warned of the possibility of a 15-hour power outage in the face of a fuel crisis.
He proposed privatization of the country’s loss-making national carrier, SriLankan Airlines, which incurred a 45-billion-rupee loss in 2020-2021.
“You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane,” he said.
The prime minister addressed the nation as protesters near the Fort Railway Station upped their demand for the arrest of those who gave orders for “political terrorism” that led to deadly clashes on May 9.
They alleged that appointing Wickremesinghe as the new prime minister was part of the game to shield the accused.
Socialist Youth Union (SYU), a wing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), had organized the protest rally.
“There is enough evidence to show that Mahinda was responsible for what happened on May 9. It is photographic and video evidence,” SYU leader Eranga Gunasekara told EFE.