Sri Lanka in limbo as president misses deadline to resign

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A fresh curfew has been imposed in Sri Lanka as the island nation still awaits the resignation of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who landed in Singapore after fleeing the country for the Maldives.

The curfew was imposed on Thursday as angry protests continued on roads and inside several government buildings the anti-government demonstrators have occupied in the last few days, and will remain in place until 5am on Friday morning.

Negotiations with protest leaders are still open, and while they continue to demand Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation and the formation of a new government they have decided to vacate some of the administrative buildings, including the prime minister’s office they occupied yesterday, and the presidential house which they have been occupying since 9 April.

Concerns remain that protesters could storm into parliament at any time, as military personnel were sent to bolster security there. A group attempted to storm the entrance the previous day, clashing with police who fended them off with tear gas and batons.

One person died due to breathing issues after being hit by tear gas and at least 45 people were hospitalised following the standoff, the Reuters news agency reported quoting sources.

On Thursday morning, troops in green military uniforms and camouflage vests arrived by armoured personnel carriers at the parliament building. The area around parliament was deserted as the police manned barricades on the approach road.

In a statement, the army said Sri Lankan soldiers have been authorised to use “necessary force” to prevent the destruction of property and life.

Earlier in a statement, the prime minister also ordered the police and military to “restore peace”, claiming that the protesters were a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy.

The move to impose a fresh curfew comes as the embattled government aims to curb the protests that were further intensified after Mr Rajapaksa fled the country in a military jet along with his wife and security officials early morning on Wednesday, instead of tendering his resignation as promised.

Mr Rajapaksa said on Saturday that he would step down by Wednesday 13 July, but with Sri Lankan presidents protected from arrest while they are in power, observers say it’s likely Mr Rajapaksa wanted to ensure his departure while he still had constitutional immunity and access to a military jet.

The president on the run left for Singapore on a Saudi airline’s flight he boarded from Malé on Thursday, according to the Maldives government. Some reports initially said he was heading to Saudi Arabia from there to request asylum, however, there is no official confirmation yet.

Saudia flight 788 from Male, which took off for Singapore at 11.28am local time and was believed to be carrying Mr Rajapaksa, was the most traced flight in the world on Thursday, according to Bloomberg. The outlet reports that at its peak over 5,000 people were tracking the flight at 7.43am GMT, according to data from Flightradar24.com, more than three times the number of people tracking the next most-watched flight – a French Air Force plane flying in Europe.

The flight arrived in Singapore on Thursday evening at 7.30pm local time. There is anticipation that Mr Rajapaksa may finally tender his resignation after he gets asylum in Saudi Arabia. However, several reports have also claimed that the president may not travel to the Middle Eastern country and will instead remain in Singapore.

Government sources told local media outlets that the president’s brothers, former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, were still in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government said it was still awaiting his formal resignation as of Thursday afternoon, with parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywarden reportedly warning him that the government will be forced to “consider other options” to remove him, according to Indian news agency PTI.

The government has said the Sri Lankan parliament will not convene on Friday as announced earlier and a date for the next meeting to discuss the appointment of a new president will be announced within three days if Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation is received.

Mr Rajapaksa’s decision to bequeath his presidential powers to his long-time ally, prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has also triggered more angry demonstrations, with protesters storming the premier’s office demanding that he steps down too.

The Sri Lankan government is said to be settling on Mr Wickremesinghe as its “first choice” to replace Mr Rajapaksa permanently, sources told Reuters, despite the anger this will trigger among protesters, who see him as part of the troubled regime that led Sri Lanka to financial ruin.

The prime minister, who is serving as acting president, is at an unknown location after his residence was set on fire by angry protesters earlier this week.

The cash-strapped nation is witnessing its most turbulent period since independence, the result of an ongoing economic crisis that has plunged it into bankruptcy, slashed tourism revenues, led to critical shortages of daily essentials and triggered political chaos.

Demonstrators want a complete change in government and to hold to account the powerful Rajapaksa family, which has ruled the country for generations. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa has acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the economic meltdown.

The political impasse only threatens to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic crisis, 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.

US treasury secretary Janet Yellen said on Thursday that China is a “very important” creditor of Sri Lanka and it would likely be in the interest of both countries if China participated in restructuring Sri Lanka’s debt.

Ms Yellen said she would urge other members of the G20 to put pressure on China to be more cooperative in long-stalled efforts to restructure the borrowings of countries in debt distress, including Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka is clearly unable to repay that debt, and it’s my hope that China will be willing to work with Sri Lanka to restructure the debt,” Ms Yellen told a news conference on the sidelines of a recent meeting of G20 finance officials on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Sri Lanka is reported to owe at least $5bn to China, although some estimates put it at almost twice that amount. India has also lent it $3.8bn and Japan is owed at least $3.5bn, according to the IMF, with another $1bn due to other rich countries.

Additional reporting by agencies

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