President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday thanked India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for giving Sri Lanka “a breath of life” by providing timely economic assistance to his country as it faced the worst economic crisis in decades.
President Wickremesinghe made the remarks while addressing a ceremonial sitting of Parliament which reconvened on Wednesday after a seven-day adjournment.
“I wish to specially mention the assistance provided by India, our closest neighbour, in our efforts of economic revitalisation,” he said.
“The Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has given us a breath of life. On behalf of my people and that of my own, I convey our gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the Government and people of India,” Mr Wickremesinghe added.
Last week, PM Modi congratulated President Wickremesinghe and said that India will continue to be supportive of the quest of the people of the island nation for stability and economic recovery, through established democratic means.
The new Sri Lankan government faces the task of leading the country out of its economic collapse and restoring order after months of mass protests that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign.
The Indian government’s assistance to Sri Lanka has reached almost $4 billion since January this year.
Sri Lanka needs about $5 billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts.
The country is currently holding talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other foreign countries on financial aid to tide over the current economic crisis.
In his speech, Mr Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka must move towards long term solutions to set the economy right.
He said the debt restructuring plan is in its final stages of being prepared and added that the economic restructuring plan would be outlined in the interim budget to be presented soon.
Sri Lanka seeks a 4-year programme with the IMF. The work to finalise the debt restructuring plan is ongoing and would be presented soon to the IMF.
Mr Wickremesinghe said the Sri Lankan economy was hit by opposition to foreign investment projects.
“When we tried to develop the oil tank complex in Trincomalee together with India, it was stated that it would be a sell out to India, and the project was halted. If at that time we were allowed to develop the oil tank complex, today people would not have to spend many days in queues for fuel,” he said.
Mr Wickremesinghe said that he would establish an office to protect the peaceful protesters and support them.
“I will not allow any kind of prejudice to the peaceful activists,” he said, while noting that some groups are trying to spread propaganda through social media that he is hunting down the protesters, which is not true.
He said he will not allow violence and terrorism. However, I will protect non-violence and democracy, he said. “The peaceful struggle is a fundamental right. I accept those rights,” he asserted.
He said all countries are Sri Lanka’s friends. “We have no enemies. We do not belong to any group”.
Mr Wickremesinghe was elected President by the lawmakers on July 20 – the first such occasion since 1978. The 73-year-old President was appointed for the rest of the term of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country and resigned on July 13 in the face of a popular uprising against his government for mismanaging the island nation’s economy. The worst economic crisis since 1948 has led to severe shortages of fuel and other essentials.
Sri Lanka has seen months of mass unrest over its worst economic crisis, with the government declaring bankruptcy in mid-April by refusing to honour its international debt.