Sri Lanka protesters end occupation of several buildings, rejoice over president’s resignation

Sri Lankan protesters began to retreat from government buildings they had seized as military troops reinforced security at the parliament on Thursday, establishing a tenuous calm in a country in both economic meltdown and political limbo.

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled a day earlier under pressure from protesters furious over the island nation’s economic collapse. But he failed to resign as promised — and made his almost equally despised prime minister acting leader.

On Thursday evening, Indunil Yapa, an aide to Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker, said Rajapaksa had emailed his resignation — but that it needed to be checked and an official announcement wouldn’t come until Friday.

After word of the resignation spread, groups of people gathered near the presidential office to celebrate. Some cheered and danced, waving the national flag, as two men sang in Sinhalese on a small stage.

Protesters also want Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to depart, and a unity government to be installed, to address the economic calamity that has triggered widespread shortages of food, fuel and other necessities. But with a fractured opposition and confusion over who was in charge, a solution seemed no closer following Rajapaksa’s departure.

Adding to confusion, the president was still on the move, leaving the Maldives for Singapore on Thursday, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Rajapaksa and his wife fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday aboard an air force plane.

It was not immediately clear if Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has previously sought medical care there, including undergoing heart surgery.

Earlier Thursday, protesters largely withdrew from the presidential palace after occupying it since last weekend. Some were seen unrolling a red carpet in the palace as they left.

The shadows of several men are seen on the lawn outside a government building.
Protesters vacate the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on Thursday. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Anticipating more protests after a group attempted to storm the parliament’s entrance a day earlier, troops in green military uniforms and camouflage vests arrived by armoured personnel carriers Thursday to reinforce barricades around the building.

Some protesters had posted videos on social media pleading with others not to storm the parliament, fearing an escalation of violence.

Protest organizer Kalum Amaratunga said a crackdown could be imminent after Wickremesinghe branded some protesters “fascists” in an address the previous evening.

Plan to elect new president next week

The protesters accuse the president — and his powerful political family — of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown.

On Wednesday, protesters undeterred by multiple rounds of tear gas scaled the walls to enter the office of Wickremesinghe as the crowd outside cheered in support and tossed water bottles to them. Protesters took turns posing at the prime minister’s desk or stood on a rooftop terrace waving the Sri Lankan flag.

Several people, some with backpacks are shown lining up to board a train.
People attempt to board an overcrowded long-distance train to Jaffna at a Colombo station on Thursday. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Many of the usual protest sites from the last week were calm on Thursday, and organizers started handing the residences back to the government.

Protest leader Devinda Kodagode told The Associated Press they were vacating official buildings after the parliament speaker said he was seeking legal options to consider since Rajapaksa left without submitting his resignation letter as promised.

“With the president out of the country … holding the captured places holds no symbolic value anymore,” Chameera Dedduwage, another organizer, told Reuters.

The protesters blame the Rajapaksas for leading the country into an economic abyss, but they are also furious with Wickremesinghe. They believe he has protected the president and that his appointment in May — the sixth time he has served as prime minister since the early 1990s — helped alleviate pressure on Rajapaksa to resign.

Two men with weapons stand on guard inside a building.
A police officer and a soldier stand guard on Thursday inside Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office. Protest leaders say they made their point with the occupation of buildings. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Calls for PM to resign as well

Wickremesinghe also has said he will resign, but not until a new government is in place. He has urged the speaker of parliament to find a new prime minister agreeable to both the ruling and opposition parties.

It’s unclear when that might happen since the opposition is deeply fractured. But if Rajapaksa resigns as promised, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20 to serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by parliament.

Many protesters say both men should step aside and make way for an infusion of new voices.

“Gotabaya resigning is one problem solved, but there are so many more,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who is not related to the prime minister.

He complained that Sri Lankan politics have been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all need to go.

“Politics needs to be treated like a job — you need to have qualifications that get you hired, not because of what your last name is,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.

People eat breakfast inside a conference hall at the president’s house after Rajapaksa fled amid the country’s economic crisis. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Leaders needed to negotiate help from IMF

The political impasse threatens to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic collapse since the absence of an alternative government could delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from India and China.

The shortages of basic necessities have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline was all the more shocking because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

After the president fled to the Maldives the whereabouts of other Rajapaksa family members who had served in the government were unclear.

Members of the security force stand guard as people protest at the Sri Lankan prime minister’s office. (Marlon Ariyasinghe/Reuters)

Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had been living at his home in Colombo after initially taking refuge at a heavily fortified Sri Lankan naval base when he was pressured to resign in May.

Basil Rajapaksa, who holds dual U.S. citizenship, resigned as finance minister in April. His own attempt to leave the country wasn’t successful Tuesday.

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