Thursday, 18 August, 2022

Protesters dig heels at Sri Lanka prez palace

  • Sun Online Desk
  • 11th July, 2022 10:50:31 AM
  • Print news

Leaders of Sri Lanka’s protest movement said on Sunday they would occupy the residences of the president and prime minister until they finally quit office, remarks that came a day after the two men agreed to resign, leaving the country in political limbo.

The country’s main opposition parties on Sunday agreed to form an all-party interim government after talks to seek ways to steer the country forward.

“We agreed in principle to form a government of unity with all parties participation for an interim period,” Wimal Weerawansa of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party’s breakaway group said. “This will be a government where all parties are represented,” he said.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party said they held extensive internal discussions. “We aim for an interim government of all parties for a limited period and then go for a parliamentary election,” Ranjith Madduma Bandara, SJB general secretary, said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will quit on July 13, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he would step down to allow an all-party interim government to take over, according to the speaker of parliament.

Thousands of protesters stormed Rajapaksa’s home and office and the prime minister’s official residence on Saturday, as demonstrations over their inability to overcome a devastating economic crisis erupted into violence. “The president has to resign, the prime minister has to resign and the government has to go,” playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera told a news conference at the main protest site in Colombo.

Though calm had returned to the streets of Colombo on Sunday, throughout the day, curious Sri Lankans roamed through the ransacked presidential palace. Members of the security forces, some with assault rifles, stood outside the compound but did not stop people from going in.

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my life,” 61-year-old handkerchief seller BM Chandrawathi, accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, told Reuters as she tried out a plush sofa in a first-floor bedroom. “They enjoyed super luxury while we suffered.”Nearby, a group of young men lounged on a four-poster bed and others jostled for turns on a treadmill set up in front of large windows overlooking manicured lawns.

Rajapaksa has not been seen in public since Friday and has not directly said anything about resigning. Wickremesinghe’s office said he would also quit, although neither he nor Rajapaksa could be contacted.

A statement from the president’s office said he ordered officials to start immediate distribution of a cooking gas consignment to the public, suggesting that he was still at work.

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

Constitutional experts say if the president and the PM resign, the speaker will be appointed as acting president and the parliament would vote for a new president within 30 days to complete Rajapaksa’s term. Soldiers were deployed around the city and Chief of Defense Staff Shavendra Silva called for public support to maintain law and order. But troops simply watched from afar as crowds of people splashed in the garden pool, lounged on beds and used their cellphone cameras to capture the moment in Rajapaksa’s sprawling residence.

Protesters claimed to have recovered millions of rupees inside the presidential palace, according to a media report on Sunday. A video shared on social media showed protesters counting the currency notes that were unearthed. The recovered money was said to be handed over to the security units, the Daily Mirror newspaper reported. Authorities have informed that they will take steps to announce the ground situation after probing the relevant facts, the daily reported.

Frustration with the economic crisis boiled over on Saturday when a huge crowd of protesters surged past armed guards into the presidential palace and took it over. Furniture and artefacts were smashed, and some took the opportunity to frolic in its swimming pool. They then moved on to the president’s office and the PM’s official residence. Late in the evening, protesters set fire to the private home of Wickremesinghe.

Neither Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe were at their residences when the buildings were attacked. About 45 people were brought injured to a hospital on Saturday, an official said, but there were no deaths. The political chaos could complicate efforts to pull Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades, triggered by a severe shortage of foreign currency that has stalled imports of essentials such as fuel, food and medicines.

The financial crisis developed after the Covid-19 pandemic hammered the tourism-reliant economy and was compounded by growing government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on importing chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture. Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month, and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70% in the coming months.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any government in power would have to “work quickly to try to identify and implement solutions” for long-term economic stability. India, which has provided support of about $3.8 billion during the crisis, said it was watching events closely. The International Monetary Fund, which has been in talks with the government for a possible $3 billion bailout, also said it was monitoring events closely.

“We hope for a resolution of the current situation that will allow for resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported programme,” the global lender said in a statement.


Source: Hindustan Times