Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Says He Will Resign Amid Protests

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would step down after just two months in office after protesters stormed and occupied the president’s residence and office amid public anger over the country’s deepening sovereign debt crisis.

The resignation of Mr Wickremesinghe, a political veteran serving his sixth term as prime minister, comes after an emergency meeting of the country’s political party leaders to appoint an all-party interim government. His resignation, he said on Twitter, would help “ensure the continued existence of government, including the safety of all citizens.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political future was also at stake.

Despite tear gas and water cannons in the capital Colombo, protesters – many waving the national flag and wearing helmets – also entered the president’s office on Saturday in one of the country’s largest anti-government demonstrations this year. Since March, mostly peaceful demonstrations have taken place in front of the office.

TV news showed large crowds rushing through security barricades before entering Mr Rajapaksa’s official residence. Some were later seen bathing in the grounds’ swimming pool. Videos allegedly filmed by protesters and shared widely on social media showed dozens of men rummaging in drawers, sitting in chairs and lounging on a four-poster bed in a bedroom at the residence. A man was shown doing bicep curls at a gym.

Mr Wickremesinghe had already faced public calls for his resignation, despite replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa – the President’s brother – as Prime Minister only in May. Demonstrators also breached his official residence on Saturday and surrounded his private apartment.

Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on Saturday.


Photo:

Amitha Thennakoon/Associated Press

At the meeting, party leaders also called for the immediate resignation of President Rajapaksa, whose powerful family has dominated Sri Lankan politics for the past two decades. According to opposition politicians, the leaders also decided to hold snap elections. Before the meeting, the prime minister’s office said the president will respect the decisions made by party leaders.

The whereabouts of the president on Saturday were not immediately clear. He had previously been brought to safety, reported the Agence France-Presse, citing an unnamed representative of the defense. The President’s Office and members of the media did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The political fallout is the culmination of months of public unrest. The South Asian nation’s flagging economy has left Sri Lankans enduring months of double-digit inflation, power outages and severe fuel and medicine shortages. Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves are so depleted that it can no longer afford to pay for essential imports, and the country defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history in May. As queues at gas stations snaked for miles around city blocks, authorities closed schools and limited gas supplies to essential services to save fuel.

Responding to calls from protest organizers to gather for mass demonstrations in Colombo this weekend, Sri Lankans from far and wide improvised around acute fuel shortages by cramming into semi-trailers, trains and crowded buses to reach the capital. Some walked miles to join the demonstrations. Protesters also gathered around a cricket ground in Galle on Sri Lanka’s beach-lined south coast, where the national team played Australia in a friendly.

Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and other major urban centers on Friday night, but lifted it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians.

“It has become a bane of this country,” said Sarath Mendis, a 47-year-old engineer, who clutches the national flag outside the president’s office in Colombo. “My kids aren’t educated because of that idiot.”

Mr Rajapaksa has defied rising calls for his resignation despite the country’s months of protests and the deepening financial crisis that had forced the resignation of several family members from public office, despite his brother, who resigned as prime minister after violent protests on May 9.

The brothers – who gained popularity among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority for ending a decades-long civil war in 2009 – have been the focus of growing public outrage over their handling of the country’s economic crisis. That includes the decision to delay its approach to the International Monetary Fund for financial facilitation by months, opting instead for a rebound in its tourism industry, a key foreign exchange earner that had been decimated by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has admitted its wrongdoing and is in talks with the IMF.

In a statement on Friday, Mr Rajapaksa said new supplies of fuel and cooking gas would reach Sri Lanka by Tuesday and that negotiations with the IMF had been “very successful”. He called on Sri Lankans to “correctly understand the current situation and act peacefully and intelligently”.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday urged people to protest peacefully and urged the authorities to allow peaceful protesters the space and security to do so.

“Chaos and violence will not fix the economy or bring the political stability Sri Lankans need now,” Ms Chung said in a tweet. The UN also called on the Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint and make every effort to prevent violence.

Nisantha Perera, a teacher from the central tea-growing region of Kandy, said he spent last night at a train station on his early morning journey to Colombo.

“The president has to go because he has brought so much disrepute to our country,” he said. “That’s why I’m proud to be part of this protest to push him out.”

write to Philip Wen at philip.wen@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/sri-lankan-protesters-demand-presidents-resignation-storm-his-residence-11657360750 Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Says He Will Resign Amid Protests

Alley Einstein

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