Sri Lanka crisis escalates as PM resigns and protesters storm presidential palace: What we know

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Sri Lanka’s political crisis has come to a dramatic head as tens of thousands of citizens stormed the presidential palace in protest at the country’s worst-ever economic emergency, forcing the resignation of prime minister and president.

In a culmination of anti-government protests taking place since March, people from across the island nation of 22 million boarded overcrowded buses and trains to descend upon the capital Colombo on Saturday to demand that Gotabaya Rajapaksa step down as president.

Sri Lankan police had attempted to use tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds, with one defence official suggesting the measure – branded illegal by lawyers and opposition politicians – had only “encouraged more people to get on the streets in defiance”.

Extraordinary footage showed protesters breaking through police barricades and sweeping into the president’s colonial-era residence – from which he is reported to have fled hours earlier.

Once inside, videos showed the crowd toting flags and banners through the corridors of the building, with some jubilant protesters feasting in the palace’s kitchen, taking selfies on beds and rifling through drawers, and even swimming in the president’s pool.

Shortly afterwards, Ranil Wickremesinghe announced he would cede to his opponents’ demands that he step down as prime minister, once all parties have agreed on a new government.

Hours later, however, Mr Wickremesinghe’s home in Colombo was set on fire as the unrest concentrated nearby, at which point Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker announced that the president was also planning to resign on Wednesday.

In a late night announcement on Saturday, President Rajapaksa said he will step down on 13 July after he was forced to flee by protesters adamant on overruning his residence.

Protesters spent Saturday night at the president’s official residence and refused to move until the leaders officially resigned. They were also seen assaulting security guards and taking away cash from the presidential house.

The announcement led to an eruption of celebratory fireworks in the capital.

Many citizens had reacted with disbelief in May when the president appointed Mr Wickremesinghe to be prime minister – a position the latter has now held six times without ever managing to serve a full term.

The president had hoped that the career politician would use his diplomacy and contacts to resuscitate Sri Lanka’s collapsed economy. But people's patience wore thin as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas only increased and oil reserves ran dry.

What happens when both prime minister and president resign?

After both the prime minister and the president resign, speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over the leadership as acting president, according to the country’s constitution.

The political upheaval has prompted the opposition parties to muster a majority in the Parliament to install a new government and force Mr Rajapaksa to resign.

Sri Lanka’s opposition political parties will meet Sunday in a bid to launch a new government and muster the 113 members needed to show a majority in parliament. Opposition lawmaker MA Sumanthiran said parties hoped to reach a consensus Sunday.

What has happened to Sri Lanka’s economy?

Sri Lanka is suffering its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from British rule in 1948.

While the nation’s finances took a hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and 2019 Easter bombings, many experts warn that the current economic woes are the result of mismanagement.

The country is suffering a severe foreign exchange shortage which has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, with fuel shortages forcing school closures and rationing for essential services.

Sri Lanka’s foreign debts now total some £39bn, and days after Mr Wickremesinghe took office, the country defaulted on its foreign debts for the first time in history. The new prime minister warned that the country’s “broken” economy was “going to get worse before it gets better”, and the following month inflation hit 54.6 per cent.

It is currently in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, having secured commitments from India and the World Bank for billions of pounds in support.

Were there any casualties on Saturday?

At least 39 people hospitalised during the protests on Saturday, including two police officers, hospital sources told Reuters.

Two of the injured are in critical condition while others sustained minor injuries, an anonymous official at the Colombo National Hospital told the Associated Press.

A local news channel said four journalists outside the prime minister’s private home were assaulted during the protests. The prime minister’s office expressed “grave regret” over the assault on reporters by security personnel.

Firefighters try to douse a fire at the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's private residence (AP Photo/ Eranga Jayawardena)
Firefighters try to douse a fire at the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's private residence (AP Photo/ Eranga Jayawardena)

To control the angry crowd at the presidential residence, police fired shots in the air but were unable to contain the overwhelming force of the crowd, eyewitnesses said.

In recent months, several Sri Lankans have been killed and hundreds wounded in anti-government demonstrations.

Where is the president now?

Mr Rajapaksa is reported to have fled the palace hours before it was swarmed by protesters.

The president was taken to safety after demonstrators amassed outside the palace gates, and he is being protected by a military unit, a senior defence source told Agence France-Presse.

His whereabouts are currently unknown, and according to the BBC there are rumours that he was at the airport attempting to flee the country “at any moment”.

Other reports claimed the president was at Colombo Port, with two ships docked there seen loading travelling bags, “suggesting that the president is going to leave”.

Shortly after news broke of the fire at Mr Wickremesinghe’s private residence, Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker announced that the president had told him he intends to step down on Wednesday.

What has the prime minister said about his plans to resign?

As the unrest intensified on Saturday, Mr Wickremesinghe held talks with several political party leaders to decide what steps to take.

“Wickremesinghe has told the party leaders that he is willing to resign as prime minister and make way for an all-party government to take over,” his office said in a statement.

Demonstrators protest inside the presidential palace after it was stormed on Saturday (REUTERS)
Demonstrators protest inside the presidential palace after it was stormed on Saturday (REUTERS)

But the prime minister said he would resign only when all parties agree on a new government, angering crowds near his home demanding he step down immediately.

“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Programme coming here and we have several matters to discuss with the IMF. Therefore, if this government leaves there should be another government,” Mr Wickremesinghe said.

What does the economic crisis mean for residents?

A few years ago Sri Lanka’s economy was growing strongly enough to provide jobs and financial security for most. It's now in a state of collapse, dependent on aid from India and other countries as its leaders desperately try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

Residents of Sri Lanka – especially the poorest – are paying the price, waiting for days for cooking fuel and petrol in lines that can extend more than a mile long.

At least 16 people have died so far waiting for fuel, including a 63-year-old man found inside his vehicle on the outskirts of Colombo.

The government has closed urban schools and some universities and is giving civil servants every Friday off for three months to conserve fuel and allow them time to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

Meanwhile, food price inflation is running at 57 per cent, according to government data, and 70 per cent of Sri Lankan households surveyed by Unicef last month reported cutting back on food consumption. Many families rely on government rice handouts and donations from charities and generous individuals.

More than 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, require humanitarian assistance, with Sri Lanka among the top 10 countries with the highest number of malnourished children, the UN agency has warned.

“It really is veering quickly into a humanitarian crisis,” said Scott Morris, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

Additional reporting by agencies

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