Sri Lanka prime minister resigns but protesters refuse to let up

Amid a dire economic crisis in Sri Lanka, protesters for weeks demanded the resignations of the prime minister and the president. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday. Still, anti-government protesters continue to defy a countrywide curfew.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP
Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard next to burnt buses a day after clashes between government supporters and anti-government protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 10, 2022.

Defying a nationwide curfew in Sri Lanka, several hundred protesters continued to chant slogans against the government on Tuesday, a day after violent clashes left four dead and prompted the resignation of the prime minister, who is blamed along with his brother, the president, for leading the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

Protesters swarmed the entrance to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office in the capital, Colombo, for the 32nd day to demand that he follow in his brother’s footsteps and quit. Thousands of protesters have crowded the area outside Mr. Rajapaksa’s office for weeks, but the number dropped to hundreds on Tuesday due to a 36-hour curfew imposed after the clashes a day earlier.

The South Asian island nation has been seething for more than a month as protests have spread from the capital to the countryside. Opposition to the government has drawn people from across ethnicities, religions, and classes and has even seen a revolt by some Rajapaksa supporters, many of whom have spent weeks calling for the two brothers to quit.

A government decree issued Monday night confirmed the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

With the resignation, the Cabinet was also dissolved, creating an administrative vacuum. Even though the president has the most power under the constitution, a prime minister and Cabinet are needed to manage the government.

The prime minister is also the next in line if the presidency falls vacant.

Religious leaders and the lawyers’ Bar Association of Sri Lanka were in talks with political leaders on the formation of a new Cabinet.

For months, people have been forced to stand in long lines to buy essentials because a foreign exchange crisis has caused imports of everything from milk to fuel to plunge, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts. Doctors have warned of crippling shortages of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on $7 billion in foreign debt due this year alone.

Outside the president’s office on Tuesday, protesters shouted slogans for Mr. Rajapaksa to resign and rebuilt the tents damaged in an attack Monday by government supporters.

One of the protesters, software engineer Chamath Bogahawatta, said the government “did something very despicable by bringing in people to provoke us.”

“There will be more people joining us. How long are they going to rule a country under curfew?” he said.

Violence erupted on Monday in front of the Rajapaksas’ offices as government supporters hit protesters with wooden and iron poles. Authorities swiftly deployed armed troops in many parts of the country and imposed a curfew until Wednesday.

The violence by government supporters triggered immediate anger and chaos, and people started attacking ruling party politicians. More than a dozen houses belonging to ruling party leaders were vandalized and set ablaze.

At least four people including a ruling party lawmaker were killed and nearly 200 were injured Monday night.

“If they thought they can stop a huge peoples’ struggle by destroying our tents, I think they got their answer last night,” said protester Charith Janapriya.

“What we lost were some tents and clothes,” he said. “But we got many more people on our side than we had before.”

Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was Sri Lanka’s president from 1994 to 2005, warned against violence, tweeting that “saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule.”

President Rajapaksa is a former military officer who has loyalists within the armed forces.Pressure on President Rajapaksa to step down has increased following his brother’s resignation, analysts say, and comes as the economy has dramatically fallen apart.

The president initially said the crisis wasn’t created by him, laying the blame on global factors such as the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry and higher global oil prices caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But unable to escape the public anger, both he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, and conceded they should have sought an International Monetary Fund bailout sooner.

In March, after citizens had endured critical shortages of fuel, cooking gas, and medicine for months, the president finally reached out to the IMF. Talks to set up a rescue plan are being held, with progress dependent on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors. But any long-term plan is expected to take at least six months to get underway.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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