Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Saturday agreed to resign next week, hours after he was forced to flee his crowded residence following monster protests in Colombo sparked by the country’s catastrophic crisis.
“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.
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 also gave up his shoes!”.
The protesters also occupied the nearby presidential offices, where protesters have been camped outside for three months.
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 gunfire as 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-power demonstration in Fort Galle in the southwest, where cricket events are running smoothly further, with Australia in the spotlight.
Police imposed a curfew on Friday to prevent protesters from taking to the streets. However, the measure was lifted after opposition parties, human rights activists and the country’s bar association threatened legal action against the police chief.
The curfew was largely ignored by the protesters anyway, with some even forcing the rail authorities to take them by train to Colombo on Saturday to attend the rally, officials told AFP.
“The curfew has no deterrent effect. He actually encouraged more people to take to the streets defiantly,” the defense official said. “Passengers requested trains to reach Colombo”.
Despite the country nearly exhausting its meager petrol reserves, protesters, backed by the main opposition parties, have also hired private buses to travel to the capital.
According to the authorities, around 20,000 soldiers and police officers had been deployed to Colombo to protect the president.
The United Nations had urged the Sri Lankan authorities and protesters to ensure that Saturday’s rallies took place in a calm environment.
By May, nine people had been killed and several hundred injured in unrest across the country.
Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion external debt in April and began bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.
That crisis, of unprecedented proportions since the country’s independence in 1948, is being attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which stripped this island of 22 million people of its tourism sector currencies and was exacerbated by a series of bad policy decisions, economists say .