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Sri Lanka’s ousted leader says he did ‘utmost’ for bankrupt nation

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s ousted president did his “utmost” to avoid an economic catastrophe but the coronavirus pandemic derailed his efforts, he said in his resignation letter read out to parliament Saturday. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brief note, sent from the safety of a safe haven in Singapore, blamed COVID-19 for the financial meltdown that triggered months of protests, culminating in his humiliating escape abroad.

“I have contributed my utmost for the country and in the future too, I will contribute for the country,” Rajapaksa said in the letter, read to MPs by parliament’s Secretary-General Dhammika Dasanayake. It was not clear whether he was signalling an intention to remain involved in politics from exile. “It is a matter of personal satisfaction for me that I was able to protect our people from the pandemic despite the economic crisis we were already facing,” Rajapaksa insisted.

The virus claimed more than 16,500 lives and infected over 660,000 in the nation of 22 million, where Rajapaksa refused to institute a lockdown in the initial wave and told doctors: “Don’t panic.” One of his cabinet ministers said Sri Lanka did not require foreign vaccines and that local remedies from shamans were more than adequate.

Rajapaksa claimed Sri Lanka’s reserves were already low when he took office in November 2019 and the subsequent pandemic devastated the economy. But critics say the government’s mismanagement was a crucial factor. Official figures show Sri Lanka had $7.5 billion in foreign exchange reserves when he took over, dropping to just $1 million by the time he quit. The country is officially bankrupt.

Rajapaksa, 73, came to power in 2019 as a strongman leader but was forced out of his official residence a week ago when it was stormed by thousands of protesters. Parliament is due to elect his permanent successor on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-also an object of the protesters’ scorn-was sworn in as an interim replacement. There was no debate on Rajapaksa’s letter and the formal session ended after just 13 minutes, but political sources say horse-trading is already underway with no candidate having a guaranteed power bloc.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is a key contender and has the backing of Rajapaksa’s SLPP party, but some of its members have said they will not vote for him. Senior SLPP dissident and former media minister Dullas Alahapperuma, 63, said he was also staking a claim, while Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa announced his candidacy on Friday night. Former army chief Sarath Fonseka, 71, also wants to run. – AFP

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