By CID Staff
On March 24, 2023, Harvard’s Center for International Development and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute co-hosted a conversation with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, live from Sri Lanka, moderated by professors Tarun Khanna, Harvard Business School, and Asim I. Khwaja, Harvard Kennedy School. The event concluded with questions from the Harvard community.
Setting the Stage
CID’s Executive Director Fatema Z. Sumar opened the event with brief remarks about this critical moment in Sri Lanka’s history.
“Sri Lanka is at a pivotal moment in its history. The island nation is facing its worst-ever economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948. Since 2019, Sri Lankans have faced significant shortages of food, medicine, and fuel, as well as skyrocketing inflation. The economic crisis is estimated to have doubled the poverty rate between 2021 and 2022, increasing the number of poor people by 2.7 million. The news this week of the International Monetary Fund deal raises both hopes and questions on the economic trajectory the country will take and the reforms ahead. Tough issues remain to be resolved on democratic governance, reconciliation, the postponement of local elections, and the right to peaceful protest, among several civil liberties and human rights.”
After providing an overview of the President’s long political career and how he came to this current role in July 2022, Sumar turned the floor over to President Wickremesinghe. The President was given fifteen minutes to address the audience.
During his address, President Wickremesinghe spoke of the political disruption in Sri Lanka as he came to office, the financial hardships facing the country, and how he has focused his first nine months as President on restoring economic stability. President Wickremesinghe also acknowledged the challenges of reconciliation and expressed his commitment to unite all Sri Lankan people. In addition, he discussed his support for gender equality and youth representation in government. President Wickremesinghe concluded his address by outlining his 25-year vision for how Sri Lanka will achieve growth by prioritizing expansion into new industries and establishing new international trade agreements.
Professors Tarun Khanna and Asim I. Khwaja Moderate a Wide-Ranging Conversation
At the conclusion of the President’s address, professors Tarun Khanna, Faculty Director of the Mittal Institute and Asim I. Khwaja, Faculty Director of CID, took their seats at the front of the room to open the discussion. As economists from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, respectively, they began the discussion with a question about the recent IMF bailout.
"Why will this IMF bailout be different than the 16 others in the past? What structural changes will your government pursue?"
The discussion continued with questions on social protections, relations with China, human rights, and civil liberties.
Harvard Community Takes the Microphone
In keeping with Harvard tradition, President Wickremesinghe took questions from members of the Harvard community who were seated in the audience. Students, faculty, and other community members probed the President’s commitment to holding local elections, his support of queer rights, and accountability for the previous President. The President also responded to questions about missing persons in Sri Lanka, abolishing the executive presidency, and Sri Lanka’s relations with neighboring countries, specifically India and China.
The final question from the audience was about reconciliation.
“What is your new plan to take into account the inadequacies of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and ensure that there is real national reconciliation?"
The President acknowledged the shortcomings of the LLRC and invited the audience member to come to Sri Lanka and meet with his government to help shape the discussion about reconciliation. He added,
“Tamils are a part of Sri Lanka. We are all together, as our national anthem says. We are the children of one mother…. We have to ensure that the injustices done to the Tamils are remedied.”
To conclude the event, Professor Khwaja posed the following question to the President:
"If there is one thing you would want to be seen as your legacy, to be remembered for by the Sri Lankan people, what would that be?"
The President replied,
“Give Sri Lanka a better future. That has been my aim, that is what I have worked for, what I have stood for, and lost elections because I have spoke out openly. And that’s what I will do. That the young people here will have a better future than us, and that’s why we brought in the 25-year long-term vision.”
Professor Tarun Khanna shared his thoughts on the event on his personal blog.