Sri Lanka’s prime minister agreed to resign on Saturday after party leaders in parliament demanded that both he and the embattled president step down the day protesters stormed the president’s residence and office in a fury over worsening the economic crisis.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a voice statement that he will resign when all parties have agreed on a new government.
“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, food shortages, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several issues to discuss with the IMF. Therefore, if this government leaves, there must be another government,” he said.
His decision came after the biggest protest to date in Sri Lanka when tens of thousands of people broke through barricades and entered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and nearby office to vent their anger on a leader they believe responsible for the worst crisis in the nation.
The images showed people in a jubilant mood taking a dip in the residence’s garden pool. Some lay down on beds, others made tea and drank, and made “declarations” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe must leave immediately.
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Wickremesinghe said he suggested the president have an all-party government but said nothing about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Opposition parties in Parliament were currently discussing the formation of a new government.
Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in the hope that the career politician would use his diplomacy and connections to revive a collapsing economy. But people’s patience ran out as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas increased and oil reserves dried up.
Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he was pressured to resign as all other members of his powerful political dynasty had resigned from the cabinet.
It was not clear if Rajapaksa was inside her residence when she was robbed on Saturday. A government spokesman, Mohan Samaranayake, said he had no information about her movements.
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Political party leaders in parliament met later and decided to call for Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to resign, opposition lawmaker Rauff Hakeem said on Twitter. He said a consensus was reached that the parliament speaker should take over as temporary president and work on an interim government.
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Sri Lanka’s economy is in collapse and dependent on help from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. The economic collapse has led to severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other necessities.
The turmoil has sparked months of protests, which have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades.
The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests prompted him to seek safety at a naval base. Much of the public anger has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters blaming them for dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
At the president’s office, security personnel tried to stop protesters who were pushing the fences to run through the gardens and inside the colonial-era building.
At least 34 people, including two police officers, were injured in a scuffle as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition, while others suffered minor injuries, said an official at the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Thousands of protesters poured into the capital from the suburbs after police lifted a nightly curfew. With fuel supplies running low, many boarded buses and trains to come into the city to protest, while others made their way on bicycles and on foot.
Religious and protest leaders called on Rajapaksa to resign, saying he had lost the people’s mandate.
“His claim that he was voted in by Sinhalese Buddhists is not valid now,” Ven said. Omalpe Sobitha, prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to meet immediately to select an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not have the support of the people.
Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy has collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF have been complex because Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt state.
In April, Sri Lanka announced that it would suspend payment of foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign exchange. Its total external debt amounts to $51 billion of which it must pay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but lifted it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung called on people to protest peacefully on Friday, calling on the military and police “to give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so.”
“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need at this time,” Chung said in a tweet.
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