Sri Lanka Prime Minister resigns after economic crisis protests

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday after weeks of protests against his government.

The country has been rocked by civil unrest since March, with demonstrations turning violent at times as anger mounts over the government’s apparent mishandling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

A nationwide curfew was imposed after clashes between ruling party supporters and anti-government protesters in the capital Colombo, police said Monday. The restrictions were announced shortly before Rajapaksa announced his resignation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa pictured during his inauguration as Prime Minister in August 2020.

At least 80 people were hospitalized after violence in the protests, Colombo National Hospital said. Armed forces have been deployed in Colombo, according to the CNN team on the ground.

Rajapaksa’s office has released a statement announcing the resignation of the 76-year-old former politician, Reuters reported.

“Just moments ago, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his letter of resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” the statement said.

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the prime minister said he would stop to help form an interim unity government.

“Multiple stakeholders have indicated that the best solution to the current crisis is the formation of an interim government for all parties,” the letter said.

Pro and anti-government groups clash on Monday.

“Therefore, I have resigned so that the next steps can be taken in accordance with the Constitution.”

His departure came amid a day of chaos and violence, which culminated in the police imposing curfews across the country.

The clash started with hundreds of ruling party supporters gathering in front of the prime minister’s official residence, before marching to an anti-government protest site outside the presidential office.

Police had lined up ahead of time on the main road leading to the site, but did little to stop the pro-government protesters, according to a Reuters witness.

The riot police of the Special Task Force (STF) in the photo on Monday.

Government supporters, some armed with iron bars, attacked anti-government protesters in the “Gota Go Gama” tent village, which emerged last month and became the center of nationwide protests.

Police used tear gas cannons and water cannons to break up the confrontation, the first major clash between pro- and anti-government supporters since protests began in late March.

Government supporters march on Monday.

“This is a peaceful protest,” Pasindu Senanayaka, an anti-government protester, told Reuters. “They attacked Gota Go Gama and set fire to our tents.”

“We are now helpless, we beg for help,” Senanayaka said, as black smoke billowed from a burning tent nearby and parts of the protest camp lay in disarray.

Dozens of paramilitary troops with riot shields and helmets were deployed to keep the two groups apart after the initial clashes. The army also said it had deployed military personnel in the area.

“Strongly condemn the violent actions taken by those who instigate and participate regardless of political allegiance,” President Rajapaksa said in a tweet. “Violence does not solve current problems.”

Clashes took place outside the Prime Minister's residence.

Hit hard by the pandemic, soaring oil prices and tax cuts, Sri Lanka has only $50 million in usable foreign reserves, Treasury Secretary Ali Sabry said last week.

The government has approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout and will begin a virtual summit on Monday with IMF officials focused on obtaining emergency aid.

Facing escalating anti-government protests, Rajapaksa’s government declared a state of emergency for the second time in five weeks last week, but public discontent has steadily increased.

Long lines for cooking gas have often turned into spontaneous protests in recent days as frustrated consumers blocked roads. Domestic energy companies said they were running out of supplies of liquefied petroleum gas, mainly used for cooking.

Sri Lanka needs at least 40,000 tons of gas each month and the monthly import bill would be $40 million at current prices.

“We are a bankrupt country,” said WHK Wegapitiya, chairman of Laugfs Gas, one of the country’s two main gas suppliers.

“Banks don’t have enough dollars to open lines of credit and we can’t go to the black market. We are struggling to keep our business afloat.”

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