(COLOMBO) Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Saturday agreed to step down next week, hours after he was forced to flee his crowded residence after massive protests in Colombo sparked by the catastrophic crisis.
Posted at 7:05 am
Updated at 2:04 p.m
“To ensure a peaceful transition, the President said he would step down on July 13,” Parliament Speaker Mahinda Abeywardana said on TV.
Two relatives of the president immediately resigned: the head of the press service, Sudewa Hettiarachchi, and the media minister, Bandula Gunawardana, who also resigned his post at the head of the presidential party.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, for his part, tried to pave the way for a national unity government by urgently convening an emergency government meeting with the opposition parties, to whom he proposed his resignation.
But that wasn’t enough to calm the anger of the demonstrators, who besieged and set fire to his home that evening in his absence, leaving no one injured.
A little earlier, President Rajapaksa, who had been in the hot seat for months, had just minutes to escape before several hundred protesters entered the presidential palace, an iconic building normally reserved for receptions but where he had moved after his private in April House was stormed.
“The president was escorted to a safe location,” a defense source told AFP. Soldiers guarding the official residence shot in the air to keep protesters from approaching the palace until it was evacuated.
According to this source, the president boarded a military ship headed for territorial waters in the south of the island.
Once a middle-income country with a standard of living envied by India, Sri Lanka has been devastated by the loss of tourism revenue following a jihadi attack in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crisis on this island of 22 million people, unprecedented since independence in 1948, has been exacerbated by a series of bad political decisions, according to economists, which have been blamed by the population on the presidential clan, who have been in power since 2005.
In the presidential pool
Local TV channels showed footage of hundreds of people climbing through the gates of his palace.
Protesters then streamed live video on social media of the crowds marching in, some enjoying themselves in the presidential pool or in the bedrooms.
“This is Gotabaya’s room, here are the underwear he left,” gushed a young man, waving black briefs in a live video shared to social media. “He gave up his shoes too! “.
The protesters also occupied the nearby presidential offices, where protesters have been camped outside for three months.
“Not the Sri Lanka I dreamed of”
Demonstrations to demand Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation gathered hundreds of thousands of people on Saturday, the protesters have even forced railway authorities to transport them by train while the country is almost out of gas.
Three people were wounded by bullets when police tried to disperse crowds in the capital’s administrative district with large quantities of tear gas.
Galloping inflation, shortages, Sri Lanka lacks everything: petrol, electricity, food, medicine.
The country is negotiating a rescue plan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that will likely include tax increases.
The United Nations estimates that around 80% of the population is forced to skip meals.
“My wife and I have been eating once a day for the past two months to make sure our child gets three meals,” Janith Malinga told AFP from among the ranks of another anti-government protest in Fort Galle, in the southwest, where cricket events were going smoothly on, with Australia in the spotlight.
“It’s a complete mess and it’s not the Sri Lanka I dreamed of,” adds this protester.
According to the authorities, around 20,000 soldiers and police officers had been deployed to Colombo to protect the president.
In May, nine people were killed and several hundred injured during protests.