Sri Lanka was braced for more unrest after newly appointed president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, vowed to crack down on the protests that toppled his predecessor, condemning them as “against the law”.
Speaking after MPs picked him as successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe made it clear he would not tolerate those he perceived to be stirring up violence.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy; it is against the law,” he said.
“We will deal with them firmly according to the law. We will not allow a minority of protesters to suppress the aspirations of the silent majority clamouring for a change in the political system.”
Wickremesinghe, 73, was sworn in as the eighth president of Sri Lanka at a small ceremony on Thursday morning. He took his oath of office before chief justice Jayantha Jayasuriya at the tightly guarded parliament complex in Colombo, a statement from his office said.
Sri Lanka’s police chief and top military brass stood behind the new president as the oath was administered in the presence of parliamentary speaker Mahinda Abeywardana. Among the MPs who gathered afterwards to congratulate him was the former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the older brother of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Wickremesinghe was expected to name the leader of the parliament and old schoolmate Dinesh Gunawardena as prime minister. Gunawardena is known as a strong Rajapaksa loyalist, and served as a cabinet minister when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president, and then again when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was president.
In recent days, Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency this week, had made statements calling protesters “fascists” and indicating he would not be afraid to crack down on the demonstrations.
Less than an hour after he was declared president on Wednesday, a court order was issued prohibiting anyone from congregating within a 50-metre radius of a statue that stands at Galle Face in Colombo, where protesters spurred by the country’s economic collapse have been camped out for months.
However, people defied the order and dozens gathered on the steps of the president’s offices, which are still occupied by the protest movement, to shout rallying cries of “deal Ranil” – a reference to Wickremesinghe’s reputation as a scheming politician – as well as “Ranil bank robber”, referring to a bank bond scam he was implicated in. Hundreds of police and military stood on the periphery but did not interfere in the rally.
After being selected by MPs as president, Wickremesinghe called on the opposition parties for an “end to division” and said he wanted to “bring everyone together so that a national consensus is formed as to the way forward”.
But questions remain over whether Wickremesinghe would be able to put together a cross-party unity government acceptable to the people, after the major opposition parties had pledged their support for the presidential candidate he defeated.
Wickremesinghe has been prime minister six times and is close to the Rajapaksa family. Protesters fear that he will protect the Rajapaksas from being held accountable, as he has been accused of doing in the past, and would not instigate the constitutional change being demanded by the protest movement, including an end to the system of executive presidency.
Wickremesinghe is due to serve for the rest of Rajapaksa’s term, until November 2024.
“Ranil will be chased away, he is a crook and he doesn’t have a mandate,” said Anura Goonaratna, 53, a toy exporter. “This protest movement is going to get worse. There has to be an end to this and the only ending we will accept is throwing Ranil out, whatever it takes.”
With recriminations swirling in Sri Lanka about the country’s implosion, the head of the CIA weighed into the debate on Wednesday by blaming “dumb bets” on high-debt Chinese investment.
Speaking at the Aspen security forum in Colorado, America’s spy chief Bill Burns said: “The Chinese have a lot of weight to throw around and they can make a very appealing case for their investments.”
But he said nations should look at “a place like Sri Lanka today – heavily indebted to China – which has made some really dumb bets about their economic future and are suffering pretty catastrophic, both economic and political, consequences as a result.
“That, I think, ought to be an object lesson to a lot of other players – not just in the Middle East or South Asia, but around the world – about having your eyes wide open about those kinds of dealings.”
China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka – strategically located in the Indian Ocean and off India, often seen as a rival of Beijing – and worked closely with former president Rajapaksa.
However, analysts have disputed the China debt-trap narrative in Sri Lanka. China only accounts for 10% of Sri Lanka’s debts, most of which were concessionary loans and the repayments only accounted for less than 5% of the country’s annual foreign debt servicing.
A much greater drain on the country’s foreign exchange reserves were international sovereign bonds, much of which are from the US, which were borrowed by the country at high interest rates. It was these bond repayments – which were due to total over $1.5bn in 2022 – that drained Sri Lanka’s reserves and ultimately forced them to default in May, as the country was virtually bankrupt.
Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned last week in the face of mass protests over dire economic conditions, with the island nearly exhausting its supply of food and fuel as it no longer has foreign currency to pay for crucial imports.