Sri Lanka’s PM offers to meet with protesters

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday offered to meet with protesters manning the entrance to the president’s office and said he would share their ideas on how to solve the economic, social and political crisis listen to the country.

Protesters camped out for a fifth day demanding the resignation of the prime minister’s brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blaming him for the country’s worst economic situation in decades. They are also demanding that his powerful family step down from power, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement.

A statement from the prime minister’s office said he was “ready to speak to representatives of the protesters outside the president’s office in the capital Colombo”.

Some protesters, speaking to The Associated Press, rejected the prime minister’s offer.

“What should happen now is that as a veteran politician at a time when a majority in the country rejects him, he shouldn’t offer an interview but go home with his entire clan,” said Nuwan Kaluarachi, a teacher.

“The voice of the people is that the whole Rajapaksa family must go,” said Rasika, another protester, who gave only one name. “Let’s take our money back and send her to jail.”

The people of Sri Lanka have suffered from fuel and food shortages and daily power outages in recent months. Most of these items are paid for in hard currency, but Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, burdened with dwindling foreign exchange reserves and $25 billion in external debt to be repaid over the next five years. Nearly $7 billion is due this year.

Sri Lanka announced on Tuesday that it is suspending repayments of external debt, including bonds and government bonds, pending the completion of a loan restructuring program with the International Monetary Fund.

The Finance Ministry said the IMF had assessed Sri Lanka’s external debt as unsustainable and that keeping track of external debt payments was no longer a realistic policy.

In addition to asking the IMF for help, the government has also turned to India and China for help tackling shortages.

Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to buy cooking gas, fuel and powdered milk, and doctors have warned government hospitals are facing potentially catastrophic shortages of essential medicines.

The government says the World Bank has allocated $10 million to buy essential medicines and equipment, and the health ministry is negotiating additional funds with the World Health Organization and the Asian Development Bank. The government has also appealed to Sri Lankans living and working abroad to donate medicines or money to buy them, the government information department said.

The World Bank on Wednesday said it was concerned about Sri Lanka’s uncertain economic outlook and was working to provide emergency assistance to poor and vulnerable households to help them weather the economic crisis.

Much of the anger expressed in weeks of protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, who have held power for most of the past two decades. Critics accuse the family of borrowing heavily from the government to finance projects that have not brought in money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.

Mahinda Rajapaksa gave a speech Monday trying to reassure people that the government is working to solve the country’s financial problems.

However, he refused to cede power and said the ruling coalition would continue to rule Sri Lanka because the opposition parties rejected their calls for a unity government.

The crisis and protests prompted many cabinet members to resign. Four ministers have been sworn in as caretakers, but many key government posts are vacant.

Parliament failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 MPs in the ruling coalition said they would no longer vote according to the coalition’s instructions, severely weakening the government.

But as the opposition parties are divided, they have been unable to form a majority to take control of parliament.

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