Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will resign on July 13, the country’s Parliamentary Speaker said on Saturday night, hours after protesters stormed the Presidential Secretariat, official and private homes of Mr. Gotabaya and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a show of striking public fury over the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Late on Saturday, an angry mob set Mr. Wickremesinghe’s private residence on fire, despite military security. The PM or his family was not at the residence at the time, his office said, adding there were no known casualties so far.
President Rajapaksa, according to top defence sources, left his official residence on Friday night “as a precaution”. “He is under the protection of the military at a safe location in the country,” a senior official, requesting anonymity, told The Hindu, while some media reports said he was evacuated by the Navy just hours before the incident.
Tens of thousands of citizens took out a massive rally on Saturday, as part of a fresh wave of protests in the island, reiterating their call for the President and Prime Minister to resign immediately, for failing to arrest the crushing economic downturn that has left citizens scrambling for essentials.
Following an urgent party leaders’ meeting convened by the Parliamentary Speaker on Saturday evening, Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would resign and facilitate an “all-party government”. However, there was no official announcement of his stepping down as of Saturday night. “The PM has also told the President that he would resign as soon as such an all-party government presents itself, and is ready to take charge at once, as that is critical for the country’s stability with key meetings and tasks lined up this week,” Dinouk Colombage, media spokesperson for the Prime Minister, told The Hindu.
The Speaker, who told party leaders that Mr. Gotabaya agreed to go by their collective decision, later conveyed to the President the party leaders’ demand that he and the PM step down.
The developments came on the 92nd day of unceasing citizens’ protests in Colombo, where dozens have been residing in a tent city of resistance, while other groups have continued protesting across the island, setting up local versions of ‘Gota go gama’s or ‘Gota go’ villages, to reiterate the chief demand of an unprecedented people’s uprising in the island. Mass protests began in April as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis deepened, following a Balance of Payments problem that led to a severe dollar crunch, manifesting in shortages and spiralling living costs.
On Saturday afternoon, despite police using water cannons and tear gas in the area, protesters stormed the palatial official residence of the President. Video footage of demonstrators taking a dip in the swimming pool, cooking in the kitchen, and occupying the plush bed at the home of the most powerful man in the country soon went viral on social media. Dozens entered the heavily guarded Presidential Secretariat nearby, whose entrance protesters have blocked and occupied for nearly three months, calling it ‘gate zero’ of the anti-government agitation site at Galle Face, Colombo’s iconic oceanfront. Protesters also stormed Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister, and his private residence, which they set ablaze.
Massive crowds began descending in Colombo on Saturday morning, in a clear sign of citizens’ resolve to oust their “failed” leaders. Despite public transport being severely hit — the country has nearly run out of fuel — tens of thousands reached the capital, travelling from other districts in overcrowded buses or trains. Barring a few who had conserved fuel for their private vehicles, most demonstrators arrived at Galle Face by foot, including those from Colombo’s suburbs, walking 20 km or more to the venue in the hot sun. Dozens squeezed into pickup trucks, and chanted “Gota go home” as they held on to the vehicle’s metal frame with one hand while vigorously waving the Sri Lankan flag in the other. Student groups had already marched to the main agitation site in the capital on Friday, braving tear gas and water cannon unleashed by the police. “We have seen very little change or real action from the President and the government despite citizens’ protesting for almost three months now. The call today is unanimous. We, as the people of Sri Lanka, have no choice but to make this call and be on the streets today, we are claiming back our power,” said Bimsara Premaratne, an actor, who was at the protest.
The government tried its very best to prevent the protests — asking the public prosecutor to obtain a restraining order, which the magistrate court refused to grant, and imposing an abrupt “police curfew” late Friday night, ordering people to stay home. The curfew backfired, amid wide resistance from lawyers, the political opposition, and civic activists. Authorities were forced to lift it on Saturday morning. However, police repeatedly resorted to tear gas, water cannons and attacks on peaceful protesters and media persons on Saturday, injuring dozens.
Economic challenges persist
When the President and Prime Minister resign, the task of forming an all-party government would prove challenging given that the Sri Lankan Opposition is fragmented and the Opposition parties, together, do not have a parliamentary majority.
Even if the Opposition forms government, perhaps with support from MPs in the government benches, it would inherit a crashing economy with no quick fixes. A change at the country’s helm will not mitigate its economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has already made support contingent on creditors expressing confidence and satisfaction over the Sri Lanka’s debt restructure strategy, may take longer to gauge the stability of the new arrangement. Bilateral lenders, too, have reportedly decided to withhold further assistance until Colombo’s negotiation with creditors is successful. Sri Lanka opted for a pre-emptive default on its $50-billion foreign debt in April and has since pinned its hopes on an IMF package to qualify for new credit.
Regardless of the country’s harsh economic reality, President Gotabaya resigning would signal the “end of the Rajapaksa dynasty for the moment”, observed senior political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda. “That is a major victory for the political struggle, as even political parties have found it very difficult to dislodge the Rajapaksas. This is an outcome of citizens’ direct action, and outside the political party domain. Only a bloody revolution might have achieved this in other contexts,” he told The Hindu.
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At the same time, Sri Lanka has a “daunting challenge”, facing multiple crises — economic, social, political, and in governance. “People should be allowed to elect a new parliament that can change the Constitution to abolish the Presidential system and restore democracy. That is the most important priority.”
As for the economic problems, Prof. Uyangoda said there is “no guarantee” that a caretaker government or a newly elected government can solve them in the short-term. “See what happened in Italy, Greece, Argentina, Lebanon, or Zambia. Sri Lanka, too, should expect a period of political instability,” he said.