Sri Lanka’s main opposition party joined anti-government protesters on Friday in rejecting the appointment of a new prime minister, and insisted the president resign because of the country’s disastrous economic crisis.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed veteran opposition politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister late on Thursday, but the comments signaled it was not likely to resolve the political and economic disarray in the strategic Indian Ocean island nation.
A week of violent clashes between protesters and government supporters across the country has left 9 people dead and over 300 injured. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit as prime minister on Monday as violence spiraled and is in hiding in a military base.
The rest of the cabinet had quit earlier.
“It is clear the [new] prime minister is remote controlled by the president,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a parliamentarian and senior member of the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. “This country wants the Rajapaksas to go home. We are committed to that goal.”
Protesters who have camped out at a site near the prime minister’s office for over a month also rejected the appointment.
“We will stop this struggle when our people get justice,” said Chamalage Shivakumar, one of the hundreds of people at the “Gota Go Home” site, named for the president.
“Whoever they appoint as prime minister, we will not stop this struggle until people get relief.”
Wickremesinghe is the only lawmaker from his United National Party in the country’s parliament and will be reliant on rival political parties to form a coalition government. An alliance led by the Rajapaksas holds about 100 of parliament’s 225 seats, while the opposition has 58 seats. The rest are independent.
On Friday, Wickremesinghe met India’s high commissioner, or ambassador, to Sri Lanka, his first publicly known contact with a foreign government since his appointment.
“Discussed continued cooperation for economic recovery and stability in Sri Lanka through democratic processes,” the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a tweet.
New Delhi is battling China for influence in strategically important Sri Lanka, which lies on key shipping lanes between Asia and Europe and is home to major infrastructure projects financed by both countries.
Protesters said the appointment of Wickremesinghe will do little to ease the anger against the president, who they say is ultimately responsible for the worst economic crisis to hit the nation since it became independent in 1948.
Buffeted hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the Rajapaksa brothers, Sri Lanka is critically low on foreign exchange, and rampant inflation and fuel shortages have brought thousands onto the street in a month of protests that had remained predominantly peaceful until this week.