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Sri Lankan prime minister resigns after weeks of protests

For more than a month, protests have spread across the country, drawing people across ethnicities, religions and class.
Credit: AP
Anti-government protesters help a fellow protester who was beaten up by government supporters during a clash in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 9, 2022. Government supporters on Monday attacked protesters who have been camped outside the offices of Sri Lanka's president and prime minster, as trade unions began a “Week of Protests” demanding the government change and its president to step down over the country’s worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned Monday following weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the president, step down for dragging the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

Rajapaksa said on Twitter that he submitted his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a move that followed a violent attack by government supporters on the protesters, prompting authorities to deploy armed troops in the capital, Colombo. There was no immediate comment from the president’s office.

For more than a month, protests have spread across the country, drawing people across ethnicities, religions and class. For the first time middle-class Sri Lankans also took to the streets in large numbers, marking a dramatic revolt by many former Rajapaksa supporters, some of whom have spent weeks protesting outside the president’s office.

The protests have sparked a political reckoning in the country, with the government facing a no-confidence motion in Parliament, and underscored a dramatic fall from favor of the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty for decades. The brothers were once hailed as heroes by many of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority for ending the country’s 30-year civil war, and despite accusations of war atrocities, the two were firmly entrenched at the top of Sri Lankan politics until now.

The prime minister’s resignation comes as the country’s economy has swiftly unraveled in recent weeks, causing extraordinary pain to Sri Lankans. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plunged, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts. People have been forced to queue for hours to buy essentials. Doctors have warned of a crippling shortage of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on $7 billion in foreign debt due this year alone.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially blamed global factors for Sri Lanka’s economic woes, like the pandemic battering its tourism industry and the Russia-Ukraine conflict pushing up global oil prices so high it became hard to replenish dwindling fuel stocks. But both he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes they made that exacerbated the crisis, including conceding that they should have sought an International Monetary Fund bailout sooner.

Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the IMF to set up a rescue plan but its progress depends on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors. Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway.

Monday's violence triggered widespread anger, with people singling out Rajapaksa supporters and attacking them in many parts of the country. Homes of some government ministers and politicians supporting the Rajapaksas were also attacked and some set on fire.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, a veteran political scientist in Colombo, said the prime minister's resignation was “a very significant development” and marked a new chapter in the country’s political crisis. “The prime minister had to resign in disgrace after his supporters unleashed such violence,” he said.

He added that it was an extremely serious setback for the Rajapaksas and would be difficult for the president to maintain credibility after the attack.

But the president has so far refused to resign and Parliament must go through a difficult process if it attempts to oust him. The resignation of the prime minister means that the entire Cabinet is dissolved.

Earlier on Monday, the prime minister's supporters attacked protesters who had been demonstrating outside the prime minister’s official residence for weeks, hitting them with wooden and iron poles. They then marched to the president’s office, where they attacked protesters there and set their camps on fire.

Police fired tear gas and a water cannon at the protest site, but not forcefully enough to control the mob.

The attack occurred despite a state of emergency declared by the president Friday that gave him wide powers for riot control.

After the attack, hundreds of armed soldiers were deployed in the capital, as the protesters accused police of not preventing the attack, despite using tear gas and water cannons on protesters as recently as Friday.

“Police did not protect us, therefore we have taken it into our own hands,” said Druvi Jinasena, who was helping block roads to protect the protest site.

An official at the main hospital in Colombo said 173 people were treated, most for minor injuries from being assaulted, though 15 were seriously injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

The country’s usable foreign reserves have plummeted below $50 million and it owes nearly $25 billion in foreign debt for payment by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51 billion.

Meanwhile, popular anger at the Rajapaksa clan has only grown. Observers say the resignation and the violence ramps up pressure on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit too.

“There has been sustained pressure for the last several weeks for the president to resign but he hasn’t paid much attention to that," said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

"The site outside his office has seen among the largest protests but he still hasn’t addressed the elephant in the room — that of his own resignation,” she added.

“People are furious – and that anger is not going away anytime soon.”