Sri Lanka’s prime minister offers to meet with protesters
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa offered Wednesday to meet with protesters occupying the entrance to the president’s office, saying he would listen to their ideas for resolving the economic, social and political crisis facing the country.
The protesters camped out for a fifth day demanding the resignation of the prime minister’s brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, holding him responsible for the country’s worst economic situation in decades. They also are calling for his powerful family to leave power, accusing them of corruption and misrule.
A statement from the prime minister’s office said he is “willing to talk to” representatives of the protesters outside the president’s office in the capital, Colombo.
Some protesters who spoke with The Associated Press rejected the prime minister’s offer.
“What should happen now is as a seasoned politician, at a time when a majority in the country is rejecting him, he should not be offering to talk but should go home with his entire clan,” said Nuwan Kaluarachi, a teacher.
“The people’s voice is that the whole Rajapaksa family must leave,” said Rasika another protester who gave only one name. “Let’s take our money back and send them to jail.”
Sri Lankans in recent months have endured fuel and food shortages and daily power outages. Most of those items are paid for in hard currency, but Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, saddled with dwindling foreign reserves and $25 billion in foreign debt due for repayment over the next five years. Nearly $7 billion is due this year.
Sri Lanka announced Tuesday that it is suspending repayments of foreign debt, including bonds and government-to-government borrowing, pending the completion of a loan restructuring program with the International Monetary Fund.
The Ministry of Finance said the IMF has assessed Sri Lanka’s foreign debt as unsustainable, and that staying current on foreign debt payments is no longer a realistic policy.
In addition to seeking help from the IMF, the government has turned to India and China for help in dealing with shortages.
Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to buy cooking gas, fuel and milk powder, and doctors have warned there is a potentially catastrophic shortage of essential medicines in government hospitals.
The government says the World Bank has provided $10 million to buy essential medicine and equipment and the health ministry is in discussions with the World Health Organization and Asian Development Bank for additional funding. The government has also appealed to Sri Lankans living and working overseas to donate medicines or money to purchase them, the government’s information department said.
The World Bank said Wednesday that it is concerned about the uncertain economic outlook in Sri Lanka and is working to provide emergency support for poor and vulnerable households to help them weather the economic crisis.
Much of the anger expressed in weeks of protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, which has held power for most of the past two decades. Critics accuse the family of having the government borrow heavily to finance projects that have earned no money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
Mahinda Rajapaksa in a speech Monday sought to reassure people that the government is working to resolve the country’s financial problems.
However, he refused to yield power, saying the governing coalition will continue to rule Sri Lanka because opposition parties rejected its call for a unity government.
The crisis and protests prompted many Cabinet members to resign. Four ministers were sworn in as caretakers, but many of the key government portfolios are vacant.
Parliament has failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 governing coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions, significantly weakening the government.
But with opposition parties divided, they have been incapable of forming a majority to take control of Parliament.