Protesters in Sri Lanka have vowed not to calm down until the president and prime minister resign

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Leaders of Sri Lanka’s protest movement said on Sunday they would occupy the residences of the president and prime minister until they finally leave office, a day after the two men agreed to resign and leave the country in political limbo.

Thousands of protesters stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home, office and official residence of the Prime Minister on Saturday, as demonstrations against their inability to overcome a devastating economic crisis erupted into violence.

Rajapaksa will resign on July 13, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he will step down to allow an all-party interim government, according to the parliament speaker. Read more

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“The president has to resign, the prime minister has to resign and the government has to go,” playwright Rwanthe de Chiquera told a news conference at the main protest site in Colombo.

Surrounded by other leaders who are helping to coordinate the movement against the government, she said crowds will not be leaving the official residences of the president and prime minister until then.

Although calm returned to the streets of Colombo on Sunday, curious Sri Lankans wandered all day long in the looted presidential palace. Members of the security forces, some carrying assault rifles, stood outside the compound but did not prevent people from entering.

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my life,” BM Chandrawathi, a 61-year-old tissue seller, accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, told Reuters as she tried out a plush sofa in a first-floor bedroom.

“They enjoyed the ultimate luxury while we were suffering. They cheated on us. I wanted my children and grandchildren to see the luxurious lifestyles they were enjoying.”

Nearby, a group of young men relaxed on a four-poster bed, and others cuddled on turns on a treadmill set in front of large windows overlooking the manicured lawns.

Economic crisis

Political chaos may complicate efforts to pull Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades, caused by a severe foreign exchange shortage that has halted imports of essentials such as fuel, food and medicine.

The financial meltdown developed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the tourism-dependent economy and slashed remittances from workers abroad.

It has been exacerbated by large and growing government debt, high oil prices, and a seven-month ban on importing chemical fertilizers last year, decimating agriculture.

Gasoline was severely rationed and long queues formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. The government has asked people to work from home and closed schools in an effort to save fuel. The general inflation rate in the country of 22 million people reached 54.6% last month, and the central bank warned that it could rise to 70% in the coming months.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said any government in office should “act quickly to try to identify and implement solutions that would restore prospects for long-term economic stability, and address the discontent of the Sri Lankan people, who are very strong and tangible.”

“We urge Sri Lanka’s parliament to deal with this with a commitment to improving the country, not any one political party,” he told a news conference in Bangkok.

India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbor which has provided nearly $3.8 billion in support during the crisis, said it was watching events closely.

The International Monetary Fund, which is in talks with the government over a possible $3 billion rescue plan, said it was watching events closely.

“We hope to find a solution to the current situation that will allow the resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported program,” the World Bank said in a statement. Read more

Where is President Rajapaksa?

Rajapaksa has not been seen in public since Friday and nothing has been said directly about his resignation. Wickremesinghe’s office said he would also resign, although neither he nor Prajapaksa has been contacted.

Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abhiwardena said on Saturday that Rajapaksa’s decision to step down was taken “to ensure a peaceful handover of power”.

Constitutional experts say if the president and prime minister resign, the next step would be to appoint the speaker of parliament as acting president and parliament to vote on a new president within 30 days to complete Rajapaksa’s term.

Frustration with the economic crisis deepened on Saturday when a large crowd of protesters traversed armed guards and seized the colonial-era presidential palace. Furniture and antiques were smashed, and some took the opportunity to frolic in the pool.

Then they moved 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.

A hospital official said about 45 people were taken to a major hospital on Saturday, but there were no reports of deaths in the peaceful takeovers.

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(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe, Devjyot Ghoshal; Writing by Sanjeev Migliani and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by William Mallard, Robert Percell, Edmund Kelman and Alex Richardson

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