By Will Ripley, Iqbal Athas, Kunal Sehgal and Rhea Mogul, CNN
Sri Lanka’s acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said the country’s previous administration was “covering up facts” about its crippling financial crisis.
Former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government did not tell the truth, that Sri Lanka was “bankrupt” and “needed to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” Wickremesinghe told CNN from parliament in the nation’s administrative capital Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte Monday.
“I would like to tell the people I know what they are suffering,” he added. “We have gone back. We have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We don’t need five years or 10 years. By the end of next year let’s start stabilizing, and certainly by 2024 let’s have a functioning economy which will start growing.”
Wickremesinghe’s exclusive interview with CNN was his first with an international news organization since he was appointed acting president by former leader Rajapaksa, who fled the crisis-hit country last week.
Wickremesinghe added he that had spoken to Rajapaksa since he first fled Sri Lanka for Maldives, and then traveled to Singapore. However, Wickremesinghe said he does not know whether the former leader is still in Singapore, or elsewhere.
Wickremesinghe is now vying to be Sri Lanka’s next president, with parliament set to elect a new leader on Wednesday.
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The former six-time prime minister, who is being backed by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna political party, will face off against at least three other candidates.
But Wickremesinghe’s nomination has threatened to inflame an already volatile situation in the South Asian nation of 22 million.
Since March, Sri Lanka has been brought to its knees by a growing economic crisis that has left the country struggling to buy essential imports, including fuel, food and medicine.
Protesters have taken to the streets to demand the resignations of the country’s leaders and last week appeared to have scored a victory when Rajapaksa vowed to resign, then fled the country after thousands of demonstrators stormed his residence, and some swam in his pool. Wickremesinghe’s private residence was set on fire by angry protesters shortly after.
Wickremesinghe — prime minister before Rajapaksa stepped down — vowed to resign to make way for a unity government.
He told CNN that his torched home and much of its contents were not salvageable.
He lost more than 4,000 books, including some that were centuries old, Wickremesinghe said. A 125-year-old piano was also destroyed in the fire, he added.
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But despite this, on Monday, he reiterated his desire to compete for the top position, telling CNN that he was “not the same administration.”
“I’m not the same, people know that,” he said. “I came here to handle the economy.”
When asked why he wanted to be president and make himself a further potential target, Wickremesinghe said: “I don’t want this happening in the country. What happened to me I don’t want others to suffer … Certainly I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
Meanwhile, life for Sri Lankans remains chaotic as they navigate the country’s paralyzing crisis.
People continue to line up outside gas stations for hours — even days — desperately hoping to purchase fuel. Many local businesses are shut and supermarket shelves are increasingly barren.
As anger continues to build, Wickremesinghe said people could protest “peacefully.”
“Don’t obstruct the parliamentarians and the parliament from carrying out their duty,” he said.
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Wickremesinghe had declared a nationwide state of emergency from Monday, in a bid to quell any possible social unrest ahead of parliament’s presidential vote on July 20.
“We are trying to prevent (the police and military) from using weapons,” Wickremesinghe said. “They have been attacked on some occasions but we still told them try your best not to use weapons.”
But Wickremesinghe said he can “understand what the (people of Sri Lanka) are going through.”
“I told them there have been three bad weeks … And the whole system had broken down,” he said. “We were not going to have gas, we were not going to have diesel. It was bad.”
Wickremesinghe said he will not let protesters to obstruct parliament from voting Wednesday, or allow more buildings to be stormed.
“There has to be law and order in the country,” he said.
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CNN’s Hannah Ritchie and Wayne Chang contributed reporting.