Sri Lanka president will step down, government insists, as protesters remain unconvinced

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Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will step down from his office on Wednesday, the government insists, two days after thousands of protesters stormed his official residence demanding his resignation.

Mr Rajapaksa, who has for months refused to resign amid the “Go Home Gota” protests outside his sea-facing office in Colombo, was forced to flee when demonstrators occupied his house on Saturday. His whereabouts are currently unknown, though there are reports he is holed up on a naval vessel in Sri Lankan waters.

The president, who left his residence on Friday before the planned protests, has not spoken publicly since offering his resignation on Saturday. Protesters have reacted with scepticism to that announcement, stubbornly refusing to leave the president’s home and office till he has formally stepped down.

Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over the post in May, has also offered to resign once opposition parties agree to form a unity government. Hours after descending on the president’s house, protesters had also stormed Mr Wickremesinghe’s residence and set it on fire.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s office said on Monday that Mr Rajapaksa had confirmed his resignation plans directly to the prime minister, although it is understood the president has yet to declare as much in a letter to the speaker, a formality required under Sri Lanka’s constitution.

The situation has left the island nation with a political vacuum amid a crippling economic crisis that has seen its 22 million people deprived of food and fuel.

The entire Sri Lankan cabinet has said it will also resign once an agreement is reached to form a new government.

“All the ministers who participated in the discussion were of the opinion that as soon as there is an agreement to form an all-party government, they are ready to hand over their responsibilities to that government,” said the office of the prime minister.

Opposition party leaders have been holding meetings to form an alternative all-party government, an urgent requirement for the nation to continue discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3bn bailout package.

Anti-government protesters swim in a pool at the Sri Lankan president’s official residence on 9 July (AP)
Anti-government protesters swim in a pool at the Sri Lankan president’s official residence on 9 July (AP)

P Nandalal Weerasinghe, the central bank governor, on Monday said prolonged political instability may delay progress on the IMF negotiations.

“I would like to have a stable political administration sooner than later. I hope that there will be an administration in which people can place more confidence,” the governor said.

He said negotiations were on for a $1bn swap with the Reserve Bank of India.

In the wake of Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation, speaker of the parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will be temporarily sworn in as president on Wednesday for a period of 30 days, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported. Members of the house will then select a new president.

Protesters shout slogans as they play cards in the Sri Lankan prime minister’s official residence on 10 July (AP)
Protesters shout slogans as they play cards in the Sri Lankan prime minister’s official residence on 10 July (AP)

According to MP Udaya Gammanpila, the main opposition party – the United People’s Front – and those who have defected from Mr Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition have agreed to work together.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and Dullas Alahapperuma have been reportedly proposed for president and prime minister, and they have been asked to decide on how to share the positions.

“We can’t be in an anarchical condition. We have to somehow reach a consensus today,” Mr Gammanpila said.

As the political chaos continued, lawmakers apprehensive of a military takeover have considered asking the chief of defence staff Shavendra Silva to make a public statement, calling on Sri Lankans to maintain law and order, said Kavinda Makalanda, Mr Premadasa’s spokesperson.

“A civil administration is the need, not the military, in a democratic country,” Mr Makalanda said.

Meanwhile, India, which has extended a near $4bn credit line to its neighbour, denied reports that New Delhi was considering sending troops to the island nation to restore law and order.

“The high commission would like to categorically deny speculative reports in sections of media and social media about India sending her troops to Sri Lanka. These reports and such views are also not in keeping with the position of the government of India,” India’s High Commission in Colombo said in a statement.

Additional reporting by agencies

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