Protesters set fire to the house of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa

VViolence erupted in Sri Lanka on Monday night after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother resigned as prime minister, with local reports indicating protesters targeted the homes and properties of ruling party lawmakers.

The ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in the southern district of Hambantota was set on fire and police were forced to use tear gas to disperse protesters attempting to storm the prime minister’s residence in the Temple Trees area of Colombo, the DailyMirror newspaper reported. Several calls to the police spokesperson asking for confirmation of the information went unanswered.

The destruction came after a day of rapid events in Sri Lanka, which has faced months of street protests as Asia’s fastest inflation and poor public finance management lead to food shortages and fuel. Earlier on Monday, government supporters clashed with opponents of Rajapaksa who camped out in downtown Colombo for weeks demanding his resignation, prompting the government to impose a nationwide curfew and appeal to the army.

Later, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tendered his resignation as the family sought to stem the momentum of protesters calling on the entire family to stand down, leading to the dissolution of the cabinet. The president issued a statement calling on all parties in parliament to unite in a united national government to weather the crisis. But protesters defied the curfew and began attacking the homes of Rajapaksa allies.

The day of violence left Gotabaya Rajapaksa more isolated, with no government in place to lead Sri Lanka’s ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure emergency funds to buy food and fuel. The latest attacks on politicians will raise the stakes for anyone who might join a new cabinet appointed by the president.

A camp of anti-government protesters burns during a clash on May 9, 2022 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Bouddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

“Protests will continue as the economic situation deteriorates,” said Smruti S. Pattanaik, a senior fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for the people of Sri Lanka. Negotiations with the IMF are going to be long and even then the corrective measures will lead to further difficulties.

Soaring prices for everything from petrol to essential medicines have kept protests simmering in Sri Lanka, which is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its external debt. IMF officials were due to hold virtual talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts from Monday to May 23 on the country’s request for support.

Sri Lankan stocks, the worst performers in the world this year, had gained on Monday before the violence on speculation that a new government would take the reins.

After months of mostly peaceful protests, Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on Friday, giving him sweeping powers to suspend laws, detain people and seize property. Television footage on Monday showed groups burning down tents pitched by anti-government protesters outside the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo. Similar scenes played out outside the city’s seafront promenade.

An official at Colombo’s main public hospital said at least 78 people had been brought in with injuries from the violence. Both Rajapaksas condemned the day’s violence on Twitter.

Foreign diplomats, including the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, said they condemned the violence against peaceful protesters. The US ambassador said the government should investigate anyone who incites violence and calls for peace on the island.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa denounced Monday’s violence in a tweet and warned of “serious repercussions if peaceful protesters or media are harmed”.

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