Countercurrents | July 10, 2022
Sri Lanka’s opposition political parties are trying to agree on a new government a day after the country’s president and prime minister offered to resign in the country’s most chaotic day in months of political turmoil, with protesters storming both officials’ homes and setting fire to one of the buildings in a rage over the nation’s economic crisis.
Sri Lankan Army chief General Shavendra Silva on Sunday made an appeal for peace to demonstrators, news portal Colombo Gazette reported.
Both the president and prime minister of Sri Lanka agreed to resign Saturday after thousands of people turned out in protest against them. Mobs even stormed both their homes, and set the prime minister’s home ablaze.
Media reports said:
Protesters who stormed the president’s official residence, his office and the prime minister’s official residence on Saturday spent the night there, saying they will stay until the leaders officially resign.
Opposition lawmaker M. A. Sumanthiran said all opposition parties combined could easily muster the 113 members needed to show a majority in Parliament, whereupon they will request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to install the new government and then resign.
He said the parties hoped to reach consensus Sunday.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will leave office once a new government is in place, and hours later the speaker of Parliament said Rajapaksa would step down Wednesday.
Pressure on both men had grown as the economic meltdown set off acute shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to obtain food, fuel and other necessities.
If both president and prime minister resign, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over as temporary president, according to the constitution.
Thousands of protesters entered the capital Colombo on Saturday and swarmed into Rajapaksa’s fortified residence.
Video and pictures showed jubilant crowds splashing in the garden pool, lying on beds and using their cellphone cameras to capture the moment. Some made tea or used the gym while others issued statements from a conference room demanding that the president and prime minister go.
Even though both Wickremesinghe and Abeywardena said in their speeches that they had spoken with the president, they did not say anything about his whereabouts.
Protesters later broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe’s office said. It was not clear if he was there when the incursion happened and the prime minister’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Si Lanka is relying on aid from India and other nations as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.
Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.
Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of mismanagement and corruption. The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his residence in Colombo, while protesters stormed the building shortly afterwards.
However, there is some confusion about whether Rajapaksa fled on Saturday or earlier. Two defense sources have said that he was removed from the residence on Friday ahead of a planned rally this weekend, according to The Guardian.
The protests have been prompted by a major economic crisis in Sri Lanka that has seen citizens struggle to obtain everyday essentials including food, fuel and medicine.
The president’s apparent decision to flee comes just days after Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the country was “bankrupt” and the negotiations with the IMF had failed.
Thousands of protesters gathered in Colombo and some of those who stormed Rajapaksa’s residence were carrying the country’s flag as well as helmets. Footage from a Facebook live stream shows hundreds of protesters inside the president’s residence.
Police deployed tear gas and fired shots into the air but were unable to prevent the protesters from surrounding the presidential home, according to a witness who spoke to Reuters.
Geeta Mohan, foreign affairs editor with India Today, cited reports on Saturday that members of parliament from the president’s own party have signed a letter calling on Rajapaksa to resign and for an all party government to be formed under a new prime minister.
There have been largely peaceful protests in Sri Lanka calling for Rajapaksa to resign since March but those calls appear to have been intensified by a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited imports of food, fuel and medicine.
Many blame the president for the economic crisis facing the country, where inflation is expected to reach 60 percent by the end of the year.
People have had to queue for fuel for hours in Colombo and there have been some clashes with police and the military while they’ve waited. Schools have also been closed due to fuel rationing.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe told lawmakers on Tuesday that talks with the IMF had “collapsed.”
“We are now participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt country. Therefore, we have to face a more difficult and complicated situation than previous negotiations,” Wickremesinghe told the country’s parliament.
In a brief statement, Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff General Shavendra Silva was quoted as saying in reports that an opportunity has arisen to resolve the current crisis in a peaceful manner.
He requested all Sri Lankans to support the Armed Forces and the Police to ensure that peace is maintained in the country.