On Friday, March 24, President Ranil Wickremesinghe joined the Harvard community live from Sri Lanka for a discussion moderated by professors Tarun Khanna, Harvard Business School, and Asim Khwaja, Harvard Kennedy School. The event, co-sponsored by the Center for International Development at Harvard and the Mittal Institute, covered a wide range of topics, from the recently announced IMF deal to social, economic, and political reforms to human rights issues and the way forward for the country.
Sri Lanka has made headlines since the former president fled the country following massive protests demanding change. The country has continued to face unrest since President Wickremesinghe was elected to his position by parliamentary vote in 2022. President Wickremesinghe, who has been a fixture in Sri Lankan politics for 50 years, served as Prime Minister six times.
Prof. Tarun Khanna (left) and Prof. Asim Tarun Khanna (right) moderate the talk with President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
After opening remarks from President Wickremesinghe and discussion on the IMF deal, Prof. Khwaja questioned the president about the protests: “Governments often suppress and discredit protestors by labeling them as anti-nationalist and problematic. Alternatively, one can instead view protestors as deeply patriotic and helpful – people who care so much about their country they are willing to risk so much. Mr. President, can you let us know which of these two contrasting views of protestors does your government have and how do you plan to listen to and act upon their concerns?”
Mr. President, can you let us know which of these two contrasting views of protestors does your government have and how do you plan to listen to and act upon their concerns?”
In the lead up to the event, Harvard students also voiced their concerns about the president’s visit, peacefully protesting both outside the venue and inside. Prof. Tarun Khanna wrote a personal reflection on the event afterwards: “Most heartening was the courage of the protesting students in the room (and outside). They asked well-formulated, heartfelt questions, unflinchingly and with decorum.”
A Sri Lankan alumnus in attendance said that it was “perhaps the first-time ever that a Sri Lankan political leader delivered remarks at Harvard University.”
At one point, a Sri Lankan alumna of Tamil origin, considered a minority in the country, called on the president to create “an enabling environment for educated people to come back and join and serve.” But first, she added, “I want to feel at home in my own country … I think that is on you, Mr. President.”
“I certainly will build an enabling environment,” responded the president, adding an invite, “Come and tell me what exactly you think should be done.”
The full event video is available for viewing here.