As Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa agrees to step down, singing in the streets – but an uncertain future

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to step down on July 13, the speaker of the country’s parliament announced on Saturday night, after a tumultuous day in which protesters broke into Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo and splashed around in his swimming pool.

Protesters also targeted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, burning down his private residence on Fifth Lane, an affluent area of ​​the capital. Wickremesinghe later said he was ready to step down « to make way for a multi-party government ».

The announcements – which protesters celebrated by singing in the streets and setting off fireworks – marked a historic victory for protesters, who have been calling for Rajapaksa’s resignation for months over his government’s failure to do so. in the face of the country’s economic collapse.

The economic turmoil has plunged the Indian Ocean island nation of 22 million people into a severe humanitarian crisis, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine and fuel.

After months of largely peaceful protests, the anger came to a head on Saturday as more than 100,000 people gathered outside Rajapaksa’s residence, calling for his resignation.

Video shown on Sri Lankan television and social media showed protesters entering the president’s home – Rajapaksa’s office and residence – after breaking through security cordons. Footage shows protesters inside the colonial-era whitewashed building and banners hanging from the balcony.

Later Saturday, live video broadcast by local media and seen by CNN showed Wickremesinghe’s home engulfed in flames as crowds gathered.

Neither the president nor the prime minister were in their residences when the buildings were breached. Both had been moved to safe locations before the attacks, according to security officials.

Political uncertainty

Saturday’s drastic escalation in unrest could spell the end of the political dynasty of the Rajapaksa family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

In a video statement on Saturday evening, Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said Rajapaksa’s decision to step down « was taken to ensure a peaceful transfer of power ».

But how this power transition will ultimately unfold is engulfed in uncertainty.

If Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa step down, under the Sri Lankan constitution, the speaker of parliament will serve as interim president for up to 30 days. Meanwhile, the parliament will elect a new president within 30 days from one of its members who will hold the office for the remaining two years of the current term.

United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Twitter Sunday that Rajapaksa has « lost the trust » of his people.

« Now all parties must work with the international community for a new government that respects democratic and economic aspirations and upholds the human rights that the people of Sri Lanka deserve, » the committee said.

« The military and the police must show restraint and be part of the solution, not the problem, in this crisis, » he added.

Journalists injured

At least 55 people were injured in the protests, according to Dr Pushpa Zoysa of Sri Lanka’s National Hospital, who said the figure included three people with gunshot wounds. Among the injured is a lawmaker from eastern Sri Lanka, she added.

A Sri Lankan television station said six of its journalists were attacked by the Sri Lankan police special task force outside the prime minister’s private residence on Saturday night.

Two of the journalists from the Sri Lankan television channel Newsfirst then turned their cameras. Video released by Newsfirst shows two journalists being pushed to the ground by police during the confrontation. Fellow journalists who rushed to their aid were then also attacked, Newsfirst reported.

Sri Lankan Police Inspector General CD Wickremaratne said officers associated with the attacks had been « suspended immediately », according to an audio statement broadcast on national television.

Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, also condemned the attacks.

“Media freedom is paramount to democracy in Sri Lanka,” he said, calling on security forces and protesters to “act with restraint to prevent violence and ensure public safety.”

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