COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans woke up to confusion on Thursday, still waiting for their embattled president to resign after he fled the country, as the island nation fumes over an economic meltdown that has sparked political chaos.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife fled to the Maldives on Wednesday aboard an air force jet. He made the prime minister acting president in his absence — a move that further roiled passions among a public that blames Rajapaksa for an economic crisis that has caused severe shortages of food and fuel.
On Wednesday, protesters, undeterred by multiple rounds of tear gas, scaled the walls to enter the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the crowd outside cheered in support and tossed water bottles to them.
Protesters took turns posing at the prime minister’s desk or stood on a rooftop terrace waving the Sri Lankan flag after the latest in a series of takeovers of government buildings by the demonstrators — who see the political maneuvers as delaying their goal of a new government.
Late on Wednesday night, crowds also gathered outside the Parliament. Demonstrators clashed with security officers who fired tear gas into the air.
Wickremesinghe’s office declared a nationwide curfew and imposed a state of emergency giving broader powers to the military and police. The curfew was lifted early Thursday.
Over the weekend, the two leaders both said they would resign after protesters stormed Rajapaksa’s and Wickremesinghe’s official residences in a dramatic escalation of months of protests. Some set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private residence, and his whereabouts were unknown.
The protesters blame Rajapaksa and his powerful, dynastic family for leading the country into an economic abyss, but they are also furious with Wickremesinghe, whom they accuse of protecting the president. Many believe that his appointment in May alleviated pressure on Rajapaksa to resign.
“We need both … to go home,” said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant in the crowd on Wednesday. “Ranil couldn’t deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should quit. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas.”
But Wickremesinghe has said he will not leave until a new government is in place. He has urged the speak of Parliament to find a new prime minister agreeable to both the ruling and opposition parties.
It’s unclear when that might happen since the opposition is deeply fractured. But assuming that Rajapaksa resigns as planned, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20 who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.
The political impasse threatens to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic collapse 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 neighboring India and from China.
With the country in disarray, Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Shavendra Silva called for calm and for cooperation with security forces. Similar comments have rankled opposition lawmakers, who insisted that civilian leaders would be the ones to find a solution.
Protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown, which has left the island nation laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities.
The shortages have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline was all the more shocking because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.
“Gotabaya resigning is one problem solved — but there are so many more,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who is not related to the prime minister.
He complained that Sri Lankan politics have been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all need to go. “Politics needs to be treated like a job — you need to have qualifications that get you hired, not because of what your last name is,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.
After the president fled to the Maldives the whereabouts of other Rajapaksa family members who had served in the government were unclear.
Local media in the Maldives reported Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s planned travel to another country was delayed, forcing him to remain in the Indian Ocean archipelago Wednesday night.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, and it is likely Rajapaksa planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defense official was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Associated Press writers Krishan Francis and Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.
Krutika Pathi, The Associated Press