Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned at last, but not before keeping the country guessing for two days. In a not-unexpected turn of events, the beleaguered executive head of Sri Lanka fled by an Air Force plane, reached the Maldives and thereafter went to Singapore, presumably on his way to another country. Evidently hedging against the possibility of being turned back by any of these countries, he did not submit his resignation on July 13 as promised. As he sent in his resignation Thursday evening, it was clear he was holding out so that he would not lose his presidential immunity from prosecution until he reached safe haven. Given the widespread wrath against him, being in Colombo without the shield of office was not an option for him. Instead, he appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discharge the President’s functions in his absence, using a provision in the Constitution which allows such an arrangement if the incumbent has to leave the country or is otherwise unable to perform his duties. Mr. Wickremesinghe is now unlikely to respond to calls for his resignation, as the country’s Constitution provides that the current Prime Minister shall act as President until a new one is elected. While the legislature is to be convened soon for formally electing a new President, there are questions over whether the mass uprising will abate, as its protagonists have been asking for Mr. Wickremesinghe’s resignation too, seeing him as equally discredited. It is perhaps in anticipation of an intensification of the protest that Mr. Wickremesinghe has asked the military to do whatever is needed to restore order. But order is not born of bloodshed; confrontation must be avoided, and efforts made to heed the demands of the people.
The world has been amazed by the unprecedented display of righteous anger and courage by the citizens of Sri Lanka, as they channelled the widespread fury against the devastation caused by the economic crisis on their day-to-day existence. As civil society came together, it is apt to see this as a revolutionary moment in which an avaricious and apathetic political class has been humbled by people united by suffering. While external observers see this as a moment of truth for authoritarian leaders, power-hungry politicians and their ilk, it remains to be seen if political leaders in Sri Lanka themselves have drawn any lesson from it. Reports suggest that jockeying for power is going on on one side even as images of protesters overwhelming offices and residences associated with the rulers are going viral. Sri Lankans may expect that a change of regime will mean a new order that would usher in constitutional changes, policy reforms and reverse the trend of public interest being sacrificed for political ends. The next President should recognise this legitimate aspiration and refrain from any attempt to maintain the status quo, cover up the misdeeds that led the country to the current crisis or preserve the ill-gotten gains of office.