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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Sri Lanka: Presidential palace stormed, crisis deepens

Thousands of protesters today stormed Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Colombo demanding his government’s resignation amid the ongoing economic crisis.

After taking over the President’s official residence and office in Colombo, the protesters have also taken control of Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister. Despite the police and the military using teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons, besides firing in the air, people in large numbers forced into the heavily-guarded President’s house on Saturday. More than 40 protesters have been hospitalised, with three critically injured.

Making his stance clear for the first time amid massive public pressure to step down, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he would respect any decision taken at the party leaders’ meeting scheduled on Saturday evening.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Rajapaska has informed him that he would stand by any decision taken by the party leaders, who are scheduled to meet on Saturday evening. Local media is reporting that Wickremesinghe has told party leaders that he was willing to resign and make way for an all-party government to take over.

According to sources, the President had been moved out of his residence on Friday, in anticipation of today’s protests. A naval official from Sri Lanka on Saturday said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was on board SLNS Gajabahu, and will stay out in the sea until its safe for him to return to the mainland.

Amid the collapse of the country’s economy, since March 31 people have taken to the streets demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa. The continuous public protests were controlled violently, but it forced then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and all his family members in politics to step down.

With no plans to import fuel, the country has been closed for two weeks since June 27, even as people planned July 9 as the day to remove Rajapaksa. Thousands marched to Colombo on Saturday from all over the country, demanding President and Prime Minister’s resignation.

Some protesters who stormed into the Presidential Palace even started swimming in the residential pool. Video surfacing in social media showed the pool surrounded by a mob of protesters waving the country’s national flags.

Meanwhile, 16 MPs of President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party in a letter requested him to resign immediately and make way for a leader who could command the majority in Parliament to lead the country. They stated that Rajapaksa should give an opportunity to a mature leader without corruption allegations to take over the country.

Religious leaders have also urged the President and Prime Minister to resign immediately and allow the swift passage of power.

Lawyers have emphasized that President Rajapaksa himself has to decide what course of action he should take amidst the mounting public protests against him. Representing the country’s legal fraternity and sitting judges, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) said it calls upon the “President to consider whether he could continue to fulfil his obligations and the powers and duties as the President of Sri Lanka any longer”.

They also urged the Prime Minster, Speaker, Cabinet and MPs to immediately ensure that political stability of the nation was secured forthwith and there should be no delay in ensuring such transition. The lawyers also urged public to protect public property, specially the President’s House and Secretariat and also ensure that no ham is caused to any person.

Anti-government protesters also surrounded another residence of the President in Kandy, as well as the ancestral house of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the southern city of Tangalle. With the mounting crisis and tension in the country, schools have been closed until July 18.

This is the island nation’s worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948. The nation of 22 million people has witnessed its foreign exchange reserves shrink due to economic mismanagement and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result it has struggled to pay for imports of essential goods, including fuel, food and medicine.

In May, it defaulted on its debts for the first time in its history after a 30-day grace period to come up with $78 million of unpaid debt interest payments expired.

(With IANS inputs)

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