Sri Lankan prime minister resigns after weeks of protests

A Sri Lankan woman cries after anti-government protesters were attacked by government supporters outside the president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 9, 2022. Government supporters on Monday attacked protesters camping outside the offices of the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.  minister, as the unions began a

A Sri Lankan woman cries after anti-government protesters were attacked by government supporters outside the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 9, 2022. Government supporters on Monday attacked protesters camping outside the offices of the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. minister, as the unions began a “week of protests” demanding that the government change and its president resign in the face of the country’s worst economic crisis in living memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

PA

Sri Lanka’s prime minister has resigned after weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the country’s president, step down for dragging the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Twitter that he had tendered his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a move that followed a violent attack by government supporters on protesters, prompting authorities to deploy armed troops to the capital, Colombo.

Four people, including a ruling party lawmaker, died in Monday’s violence, police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa told The Associated Press. President Rajapaksa imposed a nationwide curfew Monday evening until Wednesday morning.

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

The protests underscored a dramatic fall from favor with 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 wartime atrocities, they were firmly entrenched at the pinnacle of Sri Lankan politics until now.

The prime minister’s resignation comes as the country’s economy has deteriorated rapidly in recent weeks. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plummeted, leading to severe food shortages and power cuts. People were forced to queue for hours to buy basic necessities. Doctors have warned of crippling shortages 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 Sri Lanka’s economic woes on global factors such as the pandemic hitting its tourism industry and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict which is driving up global oil prices. But he and his brother have since admitted mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, including admitting they should have sought a bailout from the International Monetary Fund sooner.

Sri Lanka is in talks with the IMF to put together a bailout, but its progress depends on debt restructuring negotiations with creditors. Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get started.

Sri Lanka was in financial trouble even before the war in Ukraine drove up food and oil prices.

The Sri Lankan government ran into large budget deficits after cutting taxes in 2019 and struggled to collect taxes during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also accumulated massive external debt – much of it owed to China – and has little foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports and defend its beleaguered currency, the rupee.

Sri Lanka tops a list compiled by Liliana Rojas-Suarez of the Center for Global Development which ranks the countries most exposed to financial shocks. The most vulnerable depend on imports of raw materials and have low foreign exchange reserves compared to what they owe to other countries.

Monday’s violence sparked widespread anger, with people targeting Rajapaksa supporters and attacking them in many parts of the country.

Ruling party MP Amarakeerthi Athukorale and his bodyguard were killed in Nittambuwa, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Colombo after the car they were traveling in was intercepted by an angry mob, said the police spokesman.

Athukorale or his bodyguard fired shots at protesters, who chased them and trapped them inside a building where their badly beaten bodies were found by police several hours later, the doorman said. -word.

Three people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds following shots fired from the lawmaker’s vehicle, he said.

Separately, in the Rajapaksas’ hometown of Weeraketiya, a mob that tried to set fire to the home of a local politician was fired on, killing two protesters, he said.

Protesters made several attempts to break into the prime minister’s official residence on Monday night, forcing police to fire tear gas. The homes of government ministers and politicians supporting the Rajapaksas were also attacked and some burned down. The memorial to the brothers’ parents was vandalized.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political scientist in Colombo, said the prime minister’s resignation 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 would be difficult for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to maintain his credibility after Monday’s violence.

But the president has so far refused to step down and parliament must go through a difficult process if it tries to oust him. The Prime Minister’s resignation led to the dissolution of the entire Cabinet.

The United States condemned the violence while expressing concern over the emergency declaration, which it said can be used to curb dissent.

“We urge the government to work quickly to identify and implement solutions to achieve long-term economic stability and address the discontent of the people of Sri Lanka over deteriorating economic conditions, including shortages of electricity, food and medicine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. in Washington.

Earlier on Monday, supporters of the prime minister 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 and burned down their camps.

Police fired tear gas and a water cannon, but not loud enough to control the crowd. The attack came despite a state of emergency declared by the president on Friday which gave him broad powers to fight riots.

Hundreds of armed soldiers were deployed in the capital, as protesters accused police of failing to prevent the attack, despite using tear gas and water cannons on protesters on Friday.

“The police didn’t protect us, so we took matters into our own hands,” said Druvi Jinasena, who was helping block roads to protect the protest site.

An official at Colombo’s main hospital said 173 people had been treated, most for minor injuries, although 15 were seriously injured. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media.

The country’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen below $50 million and it owes nearly $25 billion in external debt to repay by 2026. Its total external debt is $51 billion.

Meanwhile, popular anger against the Rajapaksa clan has only grown, increasing pressure on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down as well.

“There has been sustained pressure in recent weeks for the president to step down, but he hasn’t paid much attention to it,” said Bhavani Fonseka, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

“People are furious – and that anger isn’t going away any time soon.”

Pathi reported from New Delhi. AP Economics Writer Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.