President Ranil Wickremesinghe participated in the 40th anniversary event of the International Democrat Union (IDU) in London on the 19th and the 20th of June and joining the forum with former Canadian Prime Minister (Conservative Party) Chairman of the IDU, Mr Stephen Harper, he explained the circumstances that paved the way for his presidency and the country’s journey towards economic recovery. Following are excerpts from What President Wickremesinghe stated –
If I look back to May-June last year, Sri Lanka was on the verge of chaos. No one seemed willing to take charge or show leadership. I found myself in a peculiar position. In the 2019 Presidential Election, our party wanted to adopt a populist approach, so they chose our deputy leader as their candidate. Unfortunately, as I had anticipated, he suffered a significant defeat.
Then the COVID pandemic struck, and in August 2020, we went ahead with the election. Personally, I believed that we should stick with the IMF program. This program, which we had initiated in 2016, required Sri Lanka to commit to a primary surplus and reduce subsidies. We diligently worked towards these goals, and by 2018, we managed to achieve a primary surplus of USD 300 million. While it was a modest amount, it gave us a starting point to build upon.
However, the new government that came into power subsequently decided to cancel the IMF agreement. It was at that point that I advocated for revisiting the IMF and requesting them to reinstate the agreement. Furthermore, I suggested that we explore other options to raise USD 5 million.
During my tenure as Prime Minister, I had engaged in negotiations with the Japanese, Indians, and other parties for projects worth approximately USD 4 billion. Unfortunately, all those projects were ultimately cancelled. Despite this setback, some members of my own party believed that our approach was too narrow and opted for a populist stance, eventually breaking away from the party. As a result, for the first time in history, my party was left with just one member in parliament, which happened to be me. Meanwhile, the breakaway faction had gathered 50 members.
On May 9 of the previous year, riots erupted, leading to the burning of the residences of 65 government members of parliament. Consequently, the Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, was compelled to resign. That night, I engaged in discussions with a government member to explore how I could be of assistance. The following day, the President reached out to the leader of the opposition and the leader of the breakaway faction, asking them to assume the position of Prime Minister. However, the leader of the breakaway faction declined the offer.
During this period, I had been advising the President to seek assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. Subsequently, the government insisted that I should become Prime Minister and nominated me for the position with their support. I expressed my concern about being the only member of the party and questioned the feasibility of having a Prime Minister under such circumstances. However, they reassured me that they would support me and initiated negotiations with the IMF.
In the previous year, our debt services amounted to approximately $8 billion. By April 2022, our financial situation had deteriorated to the point where we had to declare ourselves bankrupt. However, as we began to recover and the government started functioning, a wave of protests emerged. On July 9, a group of organizers managed to gather a significant number of people in Colombo, something unprecedented in scale.
Shockingly, these protesters went on to invade the official residence of the President. Faced with this unexpected threat, the President had to flee to the harbour and board a ship belonging to the Sri Lankan Navy. Later that afternoon, party leaders convened a meeting, during which they demanded the President’s resignation and proposed that I assume the role of acting President. However, the opposition insisted that I should also resign. I stood firm and reminded them that according to the constitution, a person with a majority vote in parliament must be found before I could resign. Meanwhile, urged by some media outlets, the protesters targeted my house and set it on fire, assuming I would be compelled to leave. However, I remained steadfast and refused to back down.
The following day, I was asked to resign, while some others advocated for the Speaker to take over. However, both propositions were rejected. I maintained my position and refused to resign. On Monday, with the cabinet assembled, we held a televised meeting, while the President had already left the country for the Maldives. Meanwhile, the protesters resolved to seize the Prime Minister’s office and take control of Parliament.
Two days later, a fierce battle ensued outside the Prime Minister’s office, lasting approximately six to five hours. Despite the escalating situation, I refrained from ordering the use of firearms. Eventually, the protesters managed to break into the Prime Minister’s office, with the military accompanying them. In the afternoon, they began marching towards Parliament. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, I instructed the Chief of Defence to issue a statement, emphasizing that the protesters must not take over Parliament. The opposition leader supported this stance.
I then directed the army commander, reminding him of his responsibility to protect the parliamentary building. I stressed that we could deploy the best battalion in Sri Lanka, even without arms, to confront the protesters. Remarkably, the unarmed battalion successfully managed to quell the protests, but unfortunately, 24 soldiers were injured in the process.
At that moment, I realized that it was time for me to step in and assume control. The President had already submitted his resignation, yet nobody was willing to allow me to be sworn in as the acting president within any official buildings. I made a conscious decision not to utilize Parliament or the Chief Justice’s residence, nor any of the other buildings occupied by ministers.
Instead, I had to resort to a family temple near my house. Early in the morning, I went to the temple, accompanied by the Chief Justice, where I took my oath of office. In order to maintain secrecy, the priest requested that the location of the temple not be disclosed. There was a photograph capturing the moment I was being sworn in, but the temple’s whereabouts remained unknown.
Soon after, we had to proceed with the presidential election. In the meantime, I took necessary steps to restore law and order. I firmly stated that these were not mere protests, but actions intended to overthrow the government and disrupt the Sri Lankan parliament. I had a responsibility to put an end to it.
Although a number of protesters were initially arrested, they were later released, which only served to embolden them further. Even the presidents of the Bar Association stood in solidarity with them. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, I consulted with the Attorney General and realized that the protesters were attempting to attack Parliament. As a result, I issued detention orders and apprehended two or three individuals. It was the only viable approach to address the escalating crisis. Eventually, the Prime Minister’s office was cleared as the army intervened, followed by the clearance of the President’s office and residence.
When it came time for the election, the circumstances were quite peculiar. On one side, there was the government party led by the Rajapaksa clan, whom we were opposed to, and on the other side, there was the opposition. Surprisingly, I discovered that I had support from both the government party and the opposition, and they urged me to contest the election. Responding to their call, I entered the race and emerged victorious, winning 134 votes. Once I assumed the presidency of Sri Lanka, I promptly issued an order prohibiting any form of demonstrations in the country for one week, aiming to restore peace and stability.
As a result of these efforts, we successfully managed to restore order. We reached out to the large number of individuals who were attempting to disrupt peace and sent them a message, urging them to support the government in its endeavour to re-establish law and order. The silent majority, including businesses and individuals in the villages, stood behind this cause, even if they may not have specifically supported me personally. Their support was for the restoration of law and orders itself.
Having achieved stability, I proceeded to take additional measures to address the prevailing economic crisis. One of our key decisions was to initiate negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
I plan to finalize the debt restructuring after September. As I move forward, I will be working on Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring strategy with the parliament. However, my main focus is on completing the necessary structural reforms. I aim to promptly liberalize the economy and attract more investments to Sri Lanka. In the long run, it is crucial to have investments that will improve the balance of trade in our favour. So, why should this process take so much time? Nonetheless, I am confident that by 2024, we will have much greater control over the situation.