Sri Lanka has faced a crippling economic meltdown and struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves
Thousands of protesters descended on the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and office on Saturday demanding his resignation amid growing anger over his inability to address a worsening economic crisis. Police fired shots into the air, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters but failed to prevent them from getting into the sea-front presidential secretariat. Over two dozen protesters and police were reported to have been injured in the clashes that followed.
The whereabouts of Rajapaksa, who has remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation, remained unclear. His brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and other members of their family have resigned amid mounting public pressure over the last five months. The Rajapaksas have dominated politics in the south Asian country for close to two decades and have been blamed for the crisis. Sri Lanka has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves.
At least 15 people are believed to have died in fuel lines of causes such as heatstroke with Sri Lanka repeatedly running out of petroleum products. People have often been forced to line up at gas stations for hours and still been unable to get fuel.
Protests have rocked Sri Lanka for five months with the fresh demonstration being one of the biggest yet. People took to the streets on Saturday even as a curfew was imposed overnight and trains were halted to stop protesters from coming to Colombo. The restrictions were put in place as the UN asked the Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence.
The escalating crisis prompted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to call for an emergency meeting of top political leaders. Wickremesinghe, who took office in the middle of the crisis in May and has also been has been facing calls to resign, asked the speaker of parliament to summon the House to discuss the situation.
The protesters shouted slogans asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down and held Sri Lankan flags as they broke into the president’s residence by breaking the gates to enter the colonial-era premises. The security personnel deployed there were outnumbered and could not hold the crowd back. The protesters dismantled police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s residence. News agency Reuters quoted unnamed defence ministry sources saying the president was removed from his official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of planned protests over the weekend. It added Wickremesinghe too has been moved to a secure location.
Live visuals streamed on Facebook showed protesters shouting slogan against the Rajapaksas in the rooms and corridors of the president’s house. Some of them were seen in a swimming pool inside the house while others filled the grounds outside with no visible security.
Sri Lanka has been facing its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British in 1948. The inflation at a record high of 54.6% in June was feared to mount to 70%. Sri Lanka has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion bailout. But the growing instability could frustrate the talks as well as the restructuring of debt and raising of funds from other sources.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated the economic crisis as it hit the remittances from Sri Lankans overseas and paralysed the tourism industry the country’s economy has been heavily reliant on. The government debt rose amid rising oil prices. A ban on the import of chemical fertilisers in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.
President Rajapaksa’s mismanagement of the economy has been blamed for Sri Lanka’s woes, which triggered largely peaceful protests in March for his resignation. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services has fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.