Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the island and took refuge in the Maldives early on Wednesday, ahead of his promised resignation, appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting President, the island’s Parliamentary Speaker said.
The announcement came even as enraged protesters overran the Premier’s office in Colombo, in the midst of persisting agitations against the leader, now as unpopular as the President who appointed him two months ago, amid political turbulence in the wake of a daunting economic crisis.
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“We must end this fascist threat to democracy. We can’t allow the destruction of state property. The President’s office, the president’s secretariat and the Prime Minister’s official residence must be returned to proper custody. I have ordered military commanders and the police chief to do what is necessary to restore order,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said in a televised address, his first to the nation after being appointed acting President.
Late in the day, a gazette notification was issued by the President appointing Mr. Wickremesinghe to “exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties and functions of the Office of President” with effect from Wednesday, during his absence from Sri Lanka.
The Prime Minister, exercising his newly conferred powers, imposed an overnight curfew. The order bars anyone from being on any public road, railway, or any public ground or the sea-shore from midnight to 5 a.m. on Thursday, without a written permit.
Anti-government protesters broke into the main state television station and briefly took over broadcasts on Wednesday, video footage on private and social media showed. They also gathered outside the Air Force headquarters, after the Sri Lanka Air Force said the President, First Lady and two bodyguards boarded an Air Force flight to the Maldives early on Wednesday, in a statement confirming its services to Mr. Gotabaya, who holds the positions of Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief, until his resignation.
Meanwhile, political party leaders who met Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Wednesday evening requested him to ask the President and the Prime Minister to resign immediately or asked the President to sack the Prime Minister before he resigns.
Though both Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister offered to resign following dramatic mass protests on Saturday — demonstrators stormed the President’s office and home, while arsonists torched the Prime Minister’s private residence — neither has stepped down, prolonging the political impasse, and fuelling anti-government protests. Sri Lanka’s Constitution clearly lays out next steps in the event of the President’s and Prime Minister’s offices falling vacant, but the process cannot begin until the leaders resign. While speculation over Mr. Gotabaya’s whereabouts continues, a top official in the Maldives, who asked not to be named, citing “sensitivity” of the embattled leader’s arrival, told The Hindu that Mr. Gotabaya would “only transit” the country. Media reports said the Maldives’ Parliamentary Speaker and former President, Mohamed Nasheed, received Mr. Gotabaya at the airport, but there was no official word from Male on the development.
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Asked where the Sri Lankan leader was headed next, the source declined comment. Mr. Gotabaya’s final destination remains unclear, but reports indicated he was headed to Singapore.