New Sri Lanka president calls for unity in crisis

STORY: The island nation of 22 million people is facing its worst financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. Its foreign exchange reserves are at record lows, and the economy has been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic and a steep fall in government revenue.

"Only if we face this challenge together as one people, the country can free itself (from these hardships), and be safe from this danger,” President Ranil Wickremesinghe said during his policy speech.

Discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a four-year program that could provide up to $3 billion will resume in August, Wickremesinghe told lawmakers. He said constitutional amendments were required to curtail presidential powers - indicating he would meet a key demand of protesters who forced out his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Angered by persistent shortages of essentials, including fuel and medicines, and sky-rocketing inflation of over 60% year-on-year, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in early July, forcing Rajapaksa to first flee the country and then quit office.

With an interim budget likely to be presented within weeks, Wickremesinghe said his government was working on a long-term economic plan. This would include bringing down public debt from its current level of 140 %of Sri Lanka's GDP to less than 100% within 10 years and creating a budget surplus by 2025.

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