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

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

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 the former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country a week ago after months of protests calling for his resignation.

Due to Wickremesinghe's close association with the former president, many protesters entered and torched his house last week, and have called on him to resign as well.

Wickremesinghe takes office as Sri Lanka's economy continues to face soaring inflation, and shortages of essential goods like food, fuel and medicine. Many Sri Lankans are still waiting hours in line to buy basic supplies, often at prices that have doubled or tripled in recent months. The World Food Program's most recent analysis reported that 86% of families were either skipping meals, eating less or buying worse food.

Sri Lankan historian at Oxford University Shamara Wettimuny said that former president Rajapaksa's rule was, "To put it bluntly, a short-lived train wreck."

She spoke with All Things Considered about what Sri Lankans are expecting from the new administration, and what led to this moment.

Interview highlights

On whether Wickremesinghe has signaled any plans to staunch the country's economic crisis

He has made some progress in terms of negotiating with the IMF, who we're hoping to get some sort of bailout from, and he has been working to try and improve our fuel situation. But those changes are yet to be felt at the ground level. Walking around Colombo at the moment, we just see queues of cars snaking around the city, where people have been queuing for days to get petrol. So the crisis is still very real and still to be resolved.

On the political journey of Sri Lanka's former president, who is now in exile

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was new to electoral politics. He has a military background, and he then served as the defense secretary under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa's government between 2005 to 2015.

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

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

It has been, to put it bluntly, a short lived train wreck. He came into power in November 2019 on a platform of economic progress, as well as national security. And the reality is, he's delivered neither.

I need to stress that his policy of "national security" actually referred to the persecution of minorities, the Muslim minority in particular ... in response to the Easter Sunday Islamist attacks that took place in Sri Lanka in April 2019.

However, following the onset of COVID, the economy took a hit. In the last year, one of the biggest mistakes this former president made was to introduce, overnight, aban on fertilizers and ... an organic fertilizer policy. But with little to no preparation, farmers were simply unprepared and our harvest has suffered as a result. This failed fertilizer policy is part of the reason we are facing huge food shortages at the moment and that has added to the crisis that we're currently experiencing.

A protester waves a national flag and shouts slogans demanding elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe step down during a protest at the presidential secretariat premise on Wednesday.
Rafiq Maqbool / AP
A protester waves a national flag and shouts slogans demanding elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe step down during a protest at the presidential secretariat premise on Wednesday.

On where this regime drew its support from within Sri Lankan society

The regime under Gotabaya Rajapaksa really did draw support from the Sinhala Buddhist majority. The Sinhalese [are] the largest ethnic community, which overwhelmingly identifies as Buddhist, they're about 70% of the population.

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

On what led to the demands for resignation of then-President Rajapaksa

The economy is probably the biggest issue. In terms of agriculture, the failed fertilizer policy has meant that we are really facing immense food shortages. We're having huge food price inflation, and inflation more generally. And more recently, we've been having long power cuts.

So for instance, between March and April, some people experienced power cuts for as long as 10 hours. In the last few months, there have been massive shortages of fuel and gas with people unable to find the gas necessary to cook. A lot of families have been reporting that they've been reduced to one meal a day.

On whether she thinks the diverse coalition behind the protests will persist

The protesters united around this idea which in Sinhala is called the "Aragalaya," it means "the struggle."

They have responded to the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as president and they have said that they see him as an illegitimate president, and that they will continue the protest. There will be others, of course, across Sri Lanka who will say "give Ranil a chance to do the work he has done. He has seen successes in terms of economic policies in the past, maybe he is one of the people who can actually help us navigate this course."

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

On how Ranil Wickremesinghe might rule as the country's next president

Starting off on a negative note, since becoming the acting president, following President Rajapaksa's resignation, he introduced curfew and declared a state of emergency.

Protesters shout slogans demanding elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe step down on Wednesday.
Rafiq Maqbool / AP
Protesters shout slogans demanding elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe step down on Wednesday.

Now, a lot of people will say the only emergency is the food crisis and the energy crisis. But that does not warrant the emergency that he declared. And so a lot of the public see the emergency that he declared and the regulations that were published under emergency as [a means] to protect himself and the MPs that the public are protesting against. So that's really not a very hopeful sign.

However, he is in talks with the IMF. A lot of the international community have agreed to work with Wickremesinghe. And so, I assume he will prioritize the economic sector going forward.

On whether the recent protests have overcome Sri Lanka's ethnic divide

I'm afraid I would have to say that it's unlikely that the ethnic divide would be overcome so soon.

A lot of the Sinhalese who are on the street protesting right now are not out because they disapprove of the human rights violations that have taken place under various Rajapaksa governments.

They're there mostly for economic reasons. And it's one reason that a lot of the minorities have been skeptical about joining the protests, even though they have participated. And so I'm afraid to say that, once the immediate economic crisis is solved, a lot of people suspect that the Sinhalese will go home once again, and stop supporting demands for accountability and justice, and other grievances held by minorities that have also featured as part of the protests.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
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