Colombo, Sri Lanka – Protesters stormed the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister on Wednesday and took to the streets of the capital to demand the removal of the island nation’s top leaders as the president’s promised resignation deadline.
|IMAGE CREDIT-THE WASHINGTON POST|
The tense confrontation erupted in the early afternoon as security forces in riot gear fired several rounds of tear gas at protesters who climbed the walls and security towers of the prime minister’s compound. Every time the army fired tear gas, the crowd chanted, “Victory to the Struggle!”
The mob broke through the metal fence and then through the front gate. The security forces – the police and the army – stepped aside and erupted with joy.
Defense officials said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early Wednesday with his wife in an Air Force plane that took them to the Maldives. “We are duty bound to protect the Constitution, and the request for the aircraft was within the constitutional powers vested in the President,” Air Force spokesman Group Captain Dushan Wijesinghe said.
Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abhayawardene told a news briefing that Rajapaksa appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence. Wickremesinghe had previously offered to step down as prime minister, although he did not provide a timeline.
The speaker reiterated Rajapaksa’s intention to resign on Wednesday, but his decision to hand over the responsibility to the prime minister added to the chaos in the country.
The crowd outside the prime minister’s office was largely made up of young university students, including many who had come to Colombo from other cities. “We want all 225 [MLAs] to leave,” said 24-year-old Lahiru Madusanka, who was at the gate when she was hit by tear gas. “We’ve seen the same people all our lives.”
Many said they had come after seeing pictures of the crackdown on the protesters.
“We expect cooking gas, but we are getting tear gas,” said pastor Luke John of a local church, who was there with a friend to show solidarity with the movement. “The government has prompted us to do so.”
“Go home, gota,” shouted 49-year-old Neyomal Wijesundara, who had come with his wife. A former travel company executive, he lost his job during the economic downturn. “We want to rid our country of corrupt politicians.”
Even as celebrations took place after the takeover of the Prime Minister’s Office, volunteers formed human chains to let people in an orderly manner. The most excited citizens stepped into the corridors of power for the first time.
Some collected garbage and some distributed biscuit packets. When queues of army personnel started exiting the office, there was a loud outcry.
Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in the country’s western province, which includes Colombo. He said he had asked the armed forces to take action to restore order, which only raised fears that violence could escalate. Reacting to the takeover of his office, he said: “We cannot allow those who want to abolish the Constitution, to occupy offices and houses. We have to protect private citizens as well.”
Rajapaksa, 73, had refused to part ways for months despite mounting public anger against his family, whom many blame for the country’s economic ruin. But his decision was forced after thousands of demonstrators dramatically took over his residence last Saturday. Ignoring concerns of possible arrest, protesters stormed the president’s swimming pool and cooked food in his kitchen.
Rajapaksa has dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades. But recent years of family rule have faced allegations of corruption and disastrous economic policies. The country is beset by record inflation and drug shortages and is nearly out of fuel and money to pay for it.
With the dismayed public seeking an account, it is unclear what will happen next to the Rajapaksa family. Many citizens are demanding that Rajapaksa and his relatives be prosecuted for corruption.
“He ran away like a coward without apologizing to the country,” said 25-year-old protester Hirushi Lakshika.
On Tuesday, the president’s brother, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, was stopped from fleeing the country on a flight to Dubai. The Hindu newspaper reported that the United States rejected the president’s recent visa request. The US State Department declined to comment.
Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, with millions fighting for survival. In recent days Wickremesinghe told parliament that the economy had “completely collapsed” and the country was “bankrupt”.
Although the coronavirus pandemic was a huge factor, the Rajapaksa government’s policies have also proved to be highly damaging due to the lockdown in the tourism industry on which many workers depend. These included huge tax cuts and overnight bans on chemical fertilizers that crippled agricultural production.
Demonstrations against the government began months ago, first ousting the president’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and then forcing other family members from cabinet positions.
But as the fuel shortage increased, schools and offices were closed. In a desperate attempt to address the impending food shortage, the government asked workers to grow food at home. Rajapaksa unsuccessfully asked for a fuel loan from Russia, and Wickremesinghe tried to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.
Aid agencies have warned that the country needs millions of dollars in food aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on oil and grain prices globally have greatly exacerbated Sri Lanka’s crisis.
In the stately complex of the colonial era, where Rajapaksa lived amidst the splendor and lush gardens, the past few days resembled a carnival. The protesters who occupied there remained till the weekend.
Prasad Sinaiah, 40, a marketing professional, was there with his children on Monday night. “We wanted them all gone,” he said of the Rajapaksa family. “We lived comfortably till all this happened. Now, it’s a daily struggle.”
A former military officer, Rajapaksa lived in the United States for several years before returning to Sri Lanka in 2005. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then the President, appointed him as a senior defense official to oversee the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A Tamil separatist organization in the north of the country.
By 2009, the Sri Lankan army had crushed the group, ending a 26-year-old civil war, and had emerged as a hero for the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Human rights groups have accused the two brothers of committing war crimes, especially during the last and bloodiest period of the war. The pair denied wrongdoing and were never charged.
Inside the Fall of the Rajapaksa Dynasty in Sri Lanka
The government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa lost power in 2015. Four years later, the family made a comeback.
After suicide bombings claimed by Islamic State that killed more than 250 people, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president after an aggressive campaign that focused on national security and hardline Sinhalese nationalism. As president, he sought to increase his power by amending the constitution to give himself the right to appoint judges and to allow dual citizens to serve in parliament.
The latter paved the way for his brother Basil, a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, to take over as finance minister.
SOURCES:THE WASHINGTON POST