Censure vote vs. Sri Lankan leader fails as crisis simmers

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Police officers man a barricade at the entrance to the Sri Lankan parliament in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO – Sri Lanka's governing party on Tuesday defeated a move in Parliament to urgently debate a motion that would censure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the nation's worst economic crisis, which the prime minister said has left only enough gasoline for one day.

It was unclear when the motion will be taken up again.

It would not legally require Rajapaksa to quit, but his refusal to do so has already roiled Sri Lanka, which is on the brink of bankruptcy as it negotiates an economic lifeline with other countries and institutions to be able to import basic supplies, medicines and fuel.

M.A. Sumanthiran, a lawmaker from the opposition Tamil National Alliance, proposed that Parliament bypass the usual procedure to take up the motion against Rajapaksa urgently. But the governing party defeated the motion with a 119-68 vote.

Protesters have occupied the entrance to the president's office for more than a month calling for Rajapaksa's resignation. Months of anti-government rallies have led to the near-dismantling of the once-powerful ruling family, with one of the president's brothers resigning as prime minister, and other siblings and a nephew leaving their Cabinet posts.

Protesters accuse the Rajapaksas of triggering the crisis through corruption and misrule.

On Monday evening, the new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, offered a somber assessment of the country's dire situation. He said about $75 billion is needed urgently to help provide the nation with essential items, but the country’s treasury is struggling to find even $1 billion.

“At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day,” he said in a televised speech.

“The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives," he said. “I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed.”

Attacks by Rajapaksa supporters on peaceful protesters last week sparked countrywide violence that left nine people, including a lawmaker, dead and more than 200 wounded. Many homes of lawmakers and their supporters were burned down.

Police on Tuesday arrested two governing party lawmakers for alleged involvement in the attacks. Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa identified the lawmakers as Sanath Nishantha and Milan Jayathilaka. More than 600 people have also been arrested in connection with the violence against Rajapaksa supporters and destruction of their property, Thalduwa said.

The motion accuses Rajapaksa, whose nickname is Gota, of being responsible for the economic crisis by introducing untimely tax cuts and prohibiting the use of chemical fertilizers, which resulted in crop failures. It also says the president used the COVID-19 pandemic for militarization and mismanaged it by promoting non-scientific solutions and making unfavorable deals for vaccines.

“For almost 40 days people have camped on the road saying ‘Gota Go Home,’ but those who call themselves people's representatives, who come and sit here, are deaf,” Sumanthiran said after the vote.

“They can't even agree to take up for discussion for debate a matter that people have been shouting from the streets.”

Opposition lawmaker Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, who is not related to the president, said the motion can be taken up anytime after Thursday according to Parliament's rules.

Sri Lanka has suspended repayment of about $7 billion in foreign loans due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. The country’s total foreign debt is $51 billion. The finance ministry says the country currently has only $25 million in usable foreign reserves.

The foreign currency shortage has sharply limited imports, resulting in long lines for milk, fuel, cooking gas and medicines.

Wickremesinghe said Monday that the lack of diesel fuel will be resolved to some extent with shipments from India.

"For over 40 days, three ships with crude oil and furnace oil have been anchored within the maritime zone of Sri Lanka. We are working to obtain dollars in the open market to pay for these shipments,” he said.