Sri Lankan protesters vow to occupy presidential and prime minister’s residences until a new government is formed
Leaders of Sri Lanka’s protest movement said on Sunday they would occupy the residences of the president and prime minister until they finally step down – the day after the pair agreed to step down, leaving the country in a political vacuum.
Thousands of protesters stormed the home and office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as well as the prime minister’s official residence, on Saturday as protests over their failure to weather a devastating economic crisis escalated into violence.
Rajapaksa is expected to step down on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he would step down to allow a multi-party caretaker government to take over, according to the Speaker of Parliament.
« The president must resign, the prime minister must resign and the government must go, » playwright Ruwanthie of Chickera told a news conference at the main site of the protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.
Flanked by other leaders helping to coordinate the movement against the government, she said crowds would not leave the official residences of the president and prime minister until then.
If calm had returned to the streets of Colombo on Sunday, throughout the day, curious Sri Lankans surveyed the ransacked presidential palace. Members of the security forces, some with assault rifles, stood outside the compound but did not prevent people from entering.
« I have never seen a place like this in my life, » 61-year-old tissue seller BM Chandrawathi told Reuters, accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, as she tried a soft sofa in a bedroom on the first floor.
« They enjoyed super luxury while we suffered. We were cheated. I wanted my children and grandchildren to see the luxury lifestyle they enjoyed. »
Nearby, a group of young men were lounging on a four-poster bed and others were jostling to spin on a treadmill set up in front of large windows overlooking manicured lawns.
The political chaos could complicate efforts to pull Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades, triggered by a severe shortage of foreign currency that has blocked imports of essentials such as fuel, food and medicine.
The financial meltdown developed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the tourism-dependent economy and reduced remittances from foreign workers.
It has been compounded by a large and growing public debt, rising oil prices and a seven-month ban on the import of chemical fertilizers last year that devastated agriculture.
Gasoline was severely rationed and long queues formed outside shops selling cooking gas. The government has asked people to work from home and closed schools in a bid to save fuel. Headline inflation in the country of 22 million people hit 54.6% last month, and the central bank has warned it could hit 70% in the coming months.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any government in power should « work quickly to try to identify and implement solutions that will bring back the prospect of long-term economic stability, address the discontent of the Sri Lankan people -lankan, which is so powerful and palpable. »
« We urge the Sri Lankan parliament to approach this issue with a commitment to the betterment of the country, not with a political party, » he told a press conference in Bangkok.
India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, which provided around US$3.8 billion in support during the crisis, said it was watching events closely.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is in talks with the government for a possible $3 billion US bailout, also said it was watching developments closely.
« We hope for a resolution to the current situation that will allow our dialogue to resume on an IMF-supported program, » the global lender said in a statement.
Rajapaksa, who has not been seen in public since Friday, did not say anything directly about his resignation. Wickremesinghe’s office said he would also resign, although neither he nor Rajapaksa could be contacted.
Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said on Saturday that Rajapaksa’s decision to step down was taken « to ensure a peaceful transfer of power ».
Constitutional experts say that if the president and prime minister step down, the next step would be for the president to be appointed interim president and for parliament to vote for a new president within 30 days to complete Rajapaksa’s term.
Frustration over the economic crisis boiled over on Saturday when huge crowds of protesters stormed past armed guards at the colonial-era presidential palace and took it over. Furniture and artifacts were smashed, and some took the opportunity to frolic in his pool.
They then proceeded to the office of the president and the official residence of the prime minister. Late in the evening, protesters set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private home.
Neither Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe were in their residences when the buildings were attacked.
About 45 people were injured at a main hospital on Saturday, a hospital official said, but no deaths were reported in otherwise peaceful takeovers.