By KRUTIKA PATHI Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans woke up confused Thursday, still waiting for their embattled president to step down after he fled the country, as the island nation rages over an economic collapse that has sparked political chaos.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife fled to the Maldives on Wednesday aboard an air force plane. He named the prime minister interim president in his absence, a move that further stirred passions among a public that blames Rajapaksa for an economic crisis that has caused severe food and fuel shortages.
On Wednesday, protesters, undeterred by multiple rounds of tear gas, scaled the walls to enter Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office as the crowd outside cheered in support and hurled water bottles at them.
Protesters took turns posing at the prime minister’s desk or stood on a rooftop waving the Sri Lankan flag after the latest in a series of takeovers of government buildings by protesters, who see the political maneuvering as a setback. in his goal of a new government.
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Late Wednesday night, crowds also gathered outside Parliament. Protesters clashed with security agents who fired tear gas into the air.
Wickremesinghe’s office declared a nationwide curfew and imposed a state of emergency that gave broader powers to the armed forces and police. The curfew was lifted early Thursday.
Over the weekend, the two leaders said they would resign after protesters stormed the Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe official residences in a dramatic escalation of months of protests. Some set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private residence and his whereabouts were unknown.
Protesters blame the Rajapaksa and his powerful dynastic family for leading the country into an economic abyss, but they are also furious with Wickremesinghe, whom they accuse of protecting the president. Many believe his appointment in May eased the pressure on Rajapaksa to resign.
“We need both of them … to go home,” said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant who was among the crowd on Wednesday. “Ranil couldn’t deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should resign. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas.
But Wickremesinghe has said he will not leave until a new government is in place. He has urged speaking to Parliament to find a new prime minister acceptable to both the ruling party and the opposition.
It’s unclear when that might happen, as the opposition is deeply fractured. But assuming Rajapaksa resigns as planned, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20 who will serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially name a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.
The political impasse threatens to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic collapse, as the absence of an alternative government could delay a long-awaited International Monetary Fund bailout. Meanwhile, the country relies on help from neighboring India and China.
With the country in disarray, the Chief of Defense Staff, General Shavendra Silva, called for calm and cooperation with the security forces. Similar comments have rankled opposition lawmakers, who insisted civilian leaders would be the ones to find a solution.
Protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family has denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse, which has left the island nation saddled with debt and unable to pay for imports of essential items.
The shortage has sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline was all the more shocking because, prior to the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a comfortable and growing middle class.
“Gotabaya’s resignation is a problem solved, but there are many more,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old maritime electrical engineering student who is not related to the prime minister.
He complained that Sri Lankan politics has been dominated for years by “old politicians” who need to go. “Politics should be treated like a job: you should have qualifications that hire you, not by your last name,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.
After the president fled to the Maldives, the whereabouts of other members of the Rajapaksa family who had served in the government were unclear.
Local media in the Maldives reported that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s planned trip to another country was delayed, forcing him to stay in the Indian Ocean archipelago on Wednesday night.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, and Rajapaksa likely planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defense official was dropped when he was elected president in 2019.
Associated Press writers Krishan Francis and Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.
Learn more about AP’s coverage of Sri Lanka at https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka
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