Sri Lankan PM invites young protesters to join government

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s prime minister said on Sunday protesting youth groups would be invited to be part of governance as part of political reforms he is proposing to address the country’s political crisis triggered by an economic collapse. .

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that under the proposed constitutional reforms, the powers of the president will be reduced and those of parliament increased. In a televised statement to the nation, he said governance will be expanded through parliamentary committees where lawmakers, youth and experts will work together.

“Young people are asking for a change in the existing system. They also want to know the current issues. Therefore, I propose to appoint four youth representatives to each of these 15 committees,” Wickremesinghe said.

Protesters, mostly young people, camped outside the president’s office for more than 50 days. They are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, holding him and his family responsible for the country’s worst economic crisis. They also want an overhaul of a system of governance, saying successive administrations since independence from Britain in 1948 have mismanaged the country, leading to economic and social crises.

Students have led almost daily protests in the capital Colombo and elsewhere as Sri Lanka teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. It has already defaulted on its foreign loans and is battling severe shortages of essentials like cooking gas, fuel and medicine. People have been forced to wait for hours in long queues trying to buy goods and many are still empty-handed.

The country’s foreign currency reserves have shrunk just enough to buy two weeks of needed imports.

Authorities announced last month that they were suspending repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year. Sri Lanka must pay $25 billion until 2026. The Indian Ocean island nation’s total foreign debt is $51 billion.

Under Wickremesinghe’s proposal, one of the youth representatives will be appointed by the so-called “youth parliament” and the other three will come from protest groups and other activist organisations. “The methodology used to choose these people can be decided by the youth organizations themselves,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from youth groups to his proposal. Creating new, broad-based parliamentary committees can apparently be done within the current constitution, but broader reforms such as reducing presidential powers would require Supreme Court approval and a two-thirds parliamentary majority. It is not known when the bill will be presented for debate.

Violence erupted on May 9, when Rajapaksa supporters attacked peaceful protesters. Nine people, including a ruling party deputy, were killed and the houses of ministers burned down. The unrest nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa dynasty after the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned as prime minister. Three of the president’s siblings and a nephew had already left their cabinet posts.

Sri Lanka has been ruled by a powerful executive presidential system for nearly 45 years, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa bolstered it further with constitutional changes as soon as he was overwhelmingly elected in 2019.

Wickremesinghe said he would have an economic reform plan ready within two weeks to seek International Monetary Fund approval for a bailout.

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