Sri Lanka: Incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe says previous government ‘covered up facts’ about financial crisis

Former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not tell the truth that Sri Lanka was “bankrupt” and “should go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” Wickremesinghe told CNN from parliament in the nation’s administrative capital Sri Jayawardenepura Kote on Monday.

“I would like to tell the people I know what they are suffering from,” he added. “We went back. We have to pull ourselves up. We don’t need five years or 10 years. By the end of next year let’s start to stabilize and certainly by 2024 let’s have a functioning economy that will start to grow.”

Wickremesinghe’s exclusive interview with CNN was his first interview with an international news organization since he was appointed acting president by former leader Rajapaksa, who fled the crisis-hit country last week.

Wickremesinghe added that he had spoken to Rajapaksa since he first fled Sri Lanka to the Maldives and then traveled to Singapore. Wickremesinghe, however, said he did not know whether the former leader was still in Singapore or elsewhere.

Wickremesinghe is now in the running to become Sri Lanka’s next president, with parliament set to elect a new leader on Wednesday.

The former six-time prime minister, who is backed by Sri Lanka’s ruling political party Poduyana Peramuna, will face at least three other candidates.

But Wickremesinghe’s nomination threatened to inflame an already volatile situation in the South Asian nation of 22 million.

Since March, Sri Lanka has been brought to its knees by a growing economic crisis that has left the country struggling to buy essential imported goods, including fuel, food and medicine.

Protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of the country’s leaders and last week appeared to have won a victory when Rajapaksa promised to resign, then fled the country after thousands of demonstrators stormed his residence and some swam in his pool. Shortly afterwards, Wickremesinghe’s private residence was set on fire by angry protesters.

Wickremesinghe – prime minister before Rajapaksa stepped down – promised to resign to make way for a unity government.

He told CNN that his burned home and much of its contents could not be saved.

He lost more than 4,000 books, including some that were centuries old, Wickremesinghe said. A 125-year-old piano was also destroyed in the fire, he added.

But he nevertheless reiterated his desire to run for the top job on Monday, telling CNN that he is “not the same administration.”

“I’m not the same, people know that,” he said. “I came here to deal with the economy.

Asked why he wanted to be president and become an additional potential target, Wickremesinghe said: “I don’t want this to happen in the country. What happened to me, I don’t want others to suffer… Of course I don’t want, I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

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Meanwhile, the lives of Sri Lankans remain chaotic as they deal with the country’s crippling crisis.

People continue to line up outside petrol stations for hours – even days – desperately hoping to buy fuel. Many local businesses have closed and supermarket shelves are increasingly barren.

As anger continued to build, Wickremesinghe said people could protest “peacefully”.

Do not prevent the deputies and the parliament from fulfilling their duties, he said.

Wickremesinghe declared a nationwide state of emergency from Monday in an attempt to quell any possible social unrest ahead of the presidential vote in parliament on July 20.

“We are trying to prevent (the police and military) from using weapons,” Wickremesinghe said. “They have been attacked in some cases, but we still told them to do their best not to use weapons.

But Wickremesinghe said he could “understand what (the people of Sri Lanka) are going through”.

“I told them there had been three bad weeks… And the whole system had broken down,” he said. “We wouldn’t have gas, we wouldn’t have diesel. It was bad.”

Wickremesinghe said he would not allow protesters to obstruct Wednesday’s parliamentary vote or allow more buildings to be stormed.

“There must be law and order in the country,” he said.

CNN’s Hannah Ritchie and Wayne Chang contributed reporting.

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