Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to step down on July 13 to make way for an all-party government, the country’s parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa announced on Saturday after the unrest sparked by the unprecedented economic crisis.
“The decision to step down on 13 July was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power,” Yapa said, Reuters reported. “I, therefore, request the public to respect the law and maintain peace.”
Earlier in the day, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office only in May, also tendered his resignation.
The developments came as demonstrations against Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe intensified with thousands of protestors in Colombo storming the president’s official residence during an anti-government march.
They also broke into the private residence of Wickremesinghe in an affluent Colombo neighbourhood and set it on fire, according to PTI. It was not immediately clear whether he was present in the house or not.
In extraordinary scenes, some protestors jumped into the swimming pool in the president’s house, while others made their way into the kitchen and were seen cooking. In the president’s gym, some lifted weights and were seen running on treadmills.
Earlier, the police used tear gas and fired shots into the air to try to disperse those who had gathered to protest. More than 30 people were injured in the chaos on Saturday, the Associated Press reported.
Rajapaksa was removed from the official premises on Friday for his safety ahead of the planned rally over the weekend. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Violent clashes have erupted in Sri Lanka between supporters of Rajapaksa’s party and the anti-government demonstrators since April, when the country’s economic crisis deepened.
Sri Lanka has run out of foreign-exchange reserves that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic meltdown in 70 years. The island nation’s inflation rate touched 54.6% year-over-year in June while food inflation has shot up to 80%. In May, 10 persons had died in the clashes.
The protestors had expressed discontent with the ruling dispensation by burning the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in Hambantota in May. The clashes had even forced Gotabaya Rajapaska’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the prime minister at the time, to resign. However, Rajapaksa had refused to step down on multiple occasions.
On Saturday, Yapa said that a decision to pick an acting president within a week had been taken during a meeting of political parties, reported Reuters.
“Under the acting president the present parliament can appoint a new prime minister and an interim government,” a letter released by the Speaker’s office said. “Afterwards under a set time an election can be held for the people to elect a new parliament.”
Fiona Sirmana, who was demonstrating at the president’s house, said it was time for Sri Lanka to begin a new era.
“I feel very, very sad that they [Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe] didn’t go earlier because had they gone earlier there wouldn’t have been any destruction,” Sirmana told Reuters.
The economic crisis
Sri Lanka has defaulted on its foreign debt repayment and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.
On Sunday, the International Monetary Fund said that it was closely monitoring the developments in the island nation, Economy Next reported.
“We hope for a resolution of the current situation that will allow for resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported program, while we plan to continue technical discussions with our counterparts in the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Sri Lanka,” a statement said.
On July 5, Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the country is bankrupt. “We will have to face difficulties in 2023 as well,” he said. “This is the truth. This is the reality.”
The United Nations has warned that more than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s people are at risk of food shortages. Sri Lanka Medical Council has stated that hospitals were running with minimum resources as the country imports more than 80% of its medical supplies. The top medical body also warned that it would not be able to handle any mass casualties due to the protests.
After Saturday’s demonstrations, the United States urged the Sri Lankan leadership to act promptly to resolve the country’s economic crisis.