Sri Lankan PM resigns amid deepening crisis

Jhe brother of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister on Monday as week-long protests against Asia’s fastest inflation turned violent, prompting the government to impose a curfew and to call in the army.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has tendered his resignation to the president, his spokesman Rohan Weliwita said by telephone. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has accepted the resignation, said Sudeva Hettiarachchi, a spokeswoman for his office.

The resignation paves the way for the president to place opposition members in key government roles, a solution he has proposed to end the crisis. But it is unclear whether the prime minister’s resignation will appease angry citizens, who have also called on Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit.

On Monday evening, incidents of violence, particularly targeting the homes and properties of government lawmakers, were reported across the country. The DailyMirror newspaper reported that 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 who tried to storm the Prime Minister’s residence. minister in the Temple Trees district of Colombo.

Several calls to the police spokesperson asking for confirmation of the information went unanswered.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation is unlikely to have an impact on the ground in Sri Lanka since his brother remains in charge, a sign that the family is unwilling to give in, said Smruti S. Pattanaik, senior researcher and Sri Lanka expert at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.

“Protests will continue as the economic situation deteriorates,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for the people of Sri Lanka, the negotiations with the IMF are going to be long and even then the corrective measures will lead to further difficulties.”

The prime minister’s resignation would dissolve the federal cabinet, raising questions over who would lead Sri Lanka’s ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure emergency funds to buy food and fuel. 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.

A Sinhalese-language statement from the president’s office said on Monday that President Rajapaksa said the cabinet and prime minister should step down at their last meeting. The president has now called on all parties in parliament to unite in a united national government, the statement said.

The island nation imposed a nationwide curfew on Monday as clashes erupted between government supporters and citizens demanding the resignation of the Rajapaksas due to the country’s worst economic crisis since independence.

Television footage on Monday showed groups setting fire to tents pitched by anti-government protesters outside the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, the capital. Similar scenes played out outside the city’s waterfront promenade, where for weeks citizens lined up peacefully to demand the president step down.

Local reports also said the army had been ordered to quell the violence in Colombo. There was no immediate comment from the military. Police could be seen using water cannons to disperse the crowd and douse the flames.

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.

A central bank press conference scheduled for Monday afternoon was also canceled after the curfew was imposed.

The economic crisis has turned into a political crisis as the opposition and protesters demand the ousting of the Rajapaksas and the country’s constitution be changed to roll back the presidency’s vast executive powers.

The violence erupted as IMF officials are expected to hold virtual talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts from Monday to May 23 over the country’s request for support from the multilateral agency.

Sri Lankan dollar bonds due in July were shown down 0.49 cents to 46.04 cents on the dollar on Monday, reversing Friday’s 0.48 cent gain.

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.

On Friday night, the president had declared a state of emergency, giving him sweeping powers to suspend laws, detain people and seize property.

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

—With assistance from Ramsey Al-Rikabi and Sudhi Ranjan Sen.

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