Updated by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 1734 EAT on Sunday 10th July 2022.
Sri Lanka’s prime minister said he is willing to resign, hours after thousands of protesters stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo Saturday amid mounting public outrage over a months-long economic crisis.
The president was taken to a safe location ahead of the protest, according to reports. After talks with several political parties, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said that he is willing to step down and “make way for an all-party government to take over.”
The political crisis unraveled as dramatic footage on social media showed hundreds of people swarming President Rajapaksa’s palatial residence, chanting slogans, packing corridors and sitting in rooms, while some are seen taking a dip in a swimming pool. Protesters also entered the office of the president and the Finance ministry.
Authorities deployed nearly 20,000 troops ahead of the rally and reinforced security outside the president’s residence, but they could not prevent protesters from breaking through security barricades.
They had come in buses, trains and trucks, waving black and national flags and chanting “Gota, go home” – the cry that has been ringing in Colombo for three months demanding that President Rajapaksa quit.
The president was escorted to safety. He is still the president, he is being protected by a military unit,” AFP quoted a senior defense officer as saying. Wickremesinghe, reports said, has also been moved to a secure location.
Police had imposed a curfew Friday to prevent the rally, but it was lifted after strong objections by civil society groups and opposition parties. Frustration has been building in the country over worsening fuel shortages and runaway inflation. Much of the public ire over the economic crisis is directed against President Rajapaksa and other members of his family, who had held powerful posts in the government and are blamed for the country’s deep economic distress. While others have resigned, the president has defied calls to quit.
Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister in May after former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa quit, also faces public ire because he is seen as being close to the Rajapaksas and is accused of trying to protect them.
Leaders of opposition parties are also calling on the president to step down. The Rajapaksas, a powerful political dynasty, who returned to power in 2019, are blamed for policies that have virtually bankrupted the island nation of 22 million.
In recent weeks, the country has come to a virtual standstill. Without foreign exchange to import food, fuel, or medicine — schools have been closed for three weeks, government employees have been asked to work from home and factories find it difficult to operate due to power outages and fuel shortages.
Sales of fuel and diesel for private vehicles were banned for two weeks Sunday after authorities said the country was left with less than a day’s worth of fuel stocks for regular demand. Soaring inflation has made food expensive.
While the crisis was years in the making, mismanagement during President Rajapaksa’s tenure compounded the problems, according to economists. Populist tax breaks depleted government revenues, an abrupt switch to organic farming led to a steep decline in agricultural production, even as the pandemic battered its tourist-dependent economy. Massive loans to finance infrastructure projects built by China added to its debt burden.
The country is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, but the political instability wracking the country could undermine the process.