Protesters and people on the new president of Sri Lanka and the country’s problems


While some celebrated the election of the new president, many Sri Lankans are disappointed that the former prime minister holds the top job.

Gathered outside the presidential offices, still under the watchful eye of a small group of protesters – with the entrance hall turned into a community library – a number of activists watched a live broadcast of the Sri Lankan parliament on their phones as Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen as the island. new leader.

On the steps, a small group began to sing “Ranil Go Home”, but the prevailing mood was one of disappointment and resignation rather than overwhelming outrage.

Protest leaders had vowed not to accept Mr Wickremesinghe as president, dismissing him as too close an ally of ousted former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blamed for the severe economic crisis currently engulfing Sri Lanka.

Mr Wickremesinghe had served as Prime Minister since May.

In massive, unprecedented protests earlier this month, angry, massive mobs swarmed his official residence and offices, while others set fire to his family home.

The same protests also targeted Mr. Rajapaksa, forcing him to flee the country and then resign, with Mr. Wickremesinghe taking over as interim president.

Today, 134 members of the Sri Lankan parliament voted for him to take power permanently – his closest rival got 82 votes.

Ranil Wickremesinghe

Mr Wickremesinghe faces the task of pulling the country out of its economic collapse.

Nuzly Hameem, a leading activist in the protest movement, told the BBC, “People are exhausted after four months of continuous protest.”

Nonetheless, he listed a series of demands that have been made, including changes to the constitution and curtailing of the president’s power, as well as the calling of new elections within a year after providing “relief” to the people.

Many members of the movement seemed bewildered by the speed at which it had grown and the street power it had accumulated, worried about the possibility of violence.

Last week they handed over control of official buildings, except for the president’s secretariat, next to the main protest camp on a seaside strip known as Galle Face.

Mr Hameem said he was disappointed that the country had to “settle” for Mr Wickremesinghe, despite successfully ousting his powerful predecessor, but added: “When an election is held, people will know how vote next time”.

Mr Wickremesinghe served as prime minister six times, although he never completed a term and is considered to have long wanted to become president.

Now finally in office, however, he will face some unenviable challenges.

Sri Lanka’s economy remains in deep crisis.

A series of disastrous political decisions, coupled with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, mean that the country’s foreign exchange reserves are nearly depleted, leaving the government unable to afford to import enough fuel or medicine, while the food prices have skyrocketed.

There are queues at petrol stations that stretch for miles, with drivers often sleeping in their cars for over a week to get to the front.

Sir Lankan Tuktuk drivers line up for fuel.

Drivers have been queuing for days for fuel and many have been unable to travel due to shortages

Last month, inflation was measured at over 50%, but at a market in the capital Colombo, merchants said the price of most items had doubled or tripled since last year.

Padma Kanthi, mother of three, whose husband works as a labourer, breaks down in tears as she describes her daily struggle.

“Everything is so expensive, my children ask me for milk in the morning but I can’t afford it,” she says. “I feel so bad…the electricity to our house was cut off because we couldn’t pay the bills.”

With long queues for cylinders of gas and a steep rise in its cost, alongside fruit and vegetables, it has become common to see small bundles of firewood for sale in Sri Lankan markets, some families being forced to light fires to cook their meals.

Jayanthi Karunarathne takes care of her two grandchildren, one of whom has learning difficulties.

“We have been using firewood for three months,” she says, “I once got gasoline and kerosene while waiting in line, but after that I couldn’t get any. “

Some have had to reduce the number of meals they eat.

With the help of her family and friends, Ms. Karunarathne, who works as a seamstress, still manages to provide three meals a day for her grandsons, but she has reduced the amount she cooks.

Kitchen of Jayanthi Karunarathne

The severe fuel shortage in Sri Lanka prevents many people from cooking or fueling their vehicles.

“We didn’t expect this to happen, we own our own house,” she told the BBC, speaking from her small patio lined with flower pots.

“I’ve never had to live like this before, but now I have to do it for the sake of my grandchildren, it’s hard.”

The Sri Lankan government is in talks on restructuring its debts to foreign countries and is also discussing a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund, but that would likely lead to tax hikes and cuts in government spending.

Increased political instability would make such negotiations even more difficult, but many involved in the protests believe that real “change” can only happen when those linked to the current crisis are replaced.

Waiting in a queue for fuel stretching for miles along a major ocean-facing road, some drivers hoped Mr Wickremesinghe’s political experience meant he would be in the best position to guide the country into the future.

Others were furious. “These people have been in power for about 70 years, they’re stealing, how can we expect good things to happen?” indignantly Anil, a retired truck driver.

“We should beat them up and throw them out… If we want change, we need new faces.”

Further down the queue, Mukesh, a Tuktuk driver, said wistfully, “We don’t want change, we just want our country back to what it was before all of this.”