The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sri Lankan protesters dig in as a new prime minister is named

Catholic nuns at a protest outside the Presidential Secretariat in Sri Lanka. (Chamila Karunarathne/European Pressphoto Agency)
5 min

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As Sri Lanka emerged Thursday from days of street clashes and a military curfew, word spread that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had picked a new prime minister in an attempt to slow the country’s political and economic unraveling.

But standing in the tent city outside the president’s office where protesters have entrenched themselves, Jean Nathanielsz said she was not placated. If anything, she was getting angrier. “He is doing a deal,” said Nathanielsz, an octogenarian who has become a social media icon within the swelling protest movement in Sri Lanka. She added with venom, “No deal.”

Rajapaksa on Thursday announced that Ranil Wickremesinghe, a 73-year-old opposition politician, would succeed Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda, the former prime minister who resigned abruptly this week after his supporters attacked protesters, triggering days of mob violence, looting and arson.

Wickremesinghe was seen as a relatively safe replacement. He had previously served as Sri Lankan prime minister five times. But even before he was sworn in for a sixth term, the news was met by an outpouring of criticism from protesters, opposition politicians and even the country’s religious leaders, foreshadowing more political infighting, and potentially more unrest, for a country that can afford neither.

“Ranil is the quintessence of the professional politician with connections to allegedly corrupt people who protesters are mad about, and this is exactly the kind of insider back-scratching deal that they’re protesting in the streets over,” said Alan Keenan, a consultant at the International Crisis Group consultancy who specializes in Sri Lankan politics.

Speaking to reporters after his swearing in, Wickremesinghe brushed aside criticism that he did not have a popular mandate, comparing himself to Winston Churchill during the Second World War. “How did he become prime minister? Because of the crisis. I’ve done the same,” Wickremesinghe said. “Do you not want food, medicine, fuel and electricity? I will provide that.”

This island nation of 22 million people is entering a crucial period that could determine whether it slips into a humanitarian crisis. Following years of mismanagement and debt-fueled spending, officials announced this month that the country had nearly exhausted its foreign currency, leading to increasingly severe fuel and power shortages, and even difficulty importing medicine.

The country cannot make progress negotiating with foreign lenders to restructure its debt and secure a bailout if the government is in disarray, officials and analysts say.

Wickremesinghe may spark frustration at home, but the political veteran is viewed as a reliable technocrat abroad. The former prime minister, who began his first term in 1993 and served his last stint between 2015 and 2019, is seen as having good relations with India, Japan and the United States, three countries that the Sri Lankan government hopes will offer economic aid.

In the eyes of some foreign investors and governments, “he is seen as the adult in the room, a serious guy who can be negotiated with,” Keenan said. “If there is a significant infusion of cash that can tide Sri Lanka over, it could even save Gotabaya, at least for a while.”

On Thursday, a prominent Buddhist monk and the Catholic cardinal both criticized the elevation of Wickremesinghe as “unconstitutional.” Several opposition parties called the appointment of a man who was, until recently, seen as Rajapaksa’s rival an unsavory deal to keep the president in power.

“We have a president who has lost the legitimacy of the people and now a prime minister who never had the legitimacy of the people,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, the spokesman of the Tamil National Alliance. “We understand that the country is in dire economic straits and wouldn’t do anything to hamper its revival, but you can’t suppress democracy in the guise of revival.”

Outside the presidential offices, protesters expressed similar frustrations, and held fast to their top demand that Rajapaksa step down.

Shervin Ranatunga, a volunteer at a tent that was handing out free lunches of rice and curry to a long line of protesters and passersby, pointed to all the organizations that had descended on the protest site in recent weeks and set up stations, giving it a festival-like atmosphere. There were Red Cross vans set up for injured demonstrators, a tent for discussing constitutional issues, booths set up by artists and photographers, and a truck manned by young lawyers who offered advice for those in trouble with the authorities.

After an attack on the camp by a crowd of Rajapaksa supporters on Monday, the protesters seemed more determined than ever. “This city appeared in one week. Why can’t politicians build Sri Lanka like that?” said Ranatunga. “We don’t want any of the old people. We need new faces.”

Even though Colombo was under curfew, the waterfront boulevard was still thronged with people, united in their grievances against the government. A row of Catholic nuns fanned themselves next to robed Buddhist monks. A coalition of labor unions set up a tent next to a group representing the deaf. Across the street were the communists, the disabled veterans and the students.

Dhananjaga Thalawaththa, an engineering student, recalled coming out nearly every day since April 3, when protests began. Like many, he had defied curfew a day prior, despite a public warning from the defense ministry that troops had orders to shoot anyone caught looting or endangering others.

Thalawaththa said he would protest peacefully as long as Rajapaksa remained in office. The elevation of Wickremesinghe “seems like another attempt to stay in power,” he said. “The entire system is not working.”

Hafeel Farisz in Colombo contributed to this report.