Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa to resign after palace stormed

Source: BBC

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced he will step down after protesters stormed his official residence and set the prime minister’s house on fire.

Neither the PM nor the president were in the buildings.

Hundreds of thousands descended on the capital Colombo, calling for Mr Rajapaksa to resign after months of protests over economic mismanagement.

Mr Rajapaksa will step down on 13 July. PM Wickremesinghe has agreed to resign.

Parliamentary speaker Mahinda Abeywardana said the president decided to step down “to ensure a peaceful handover of power”.

“I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.

One protester, Fiona Sirmana, who was demonstrating at the president’s house, said it was time “to get rid of the president and the prime minister and to have a new era for Sri Lanka”.

“I feel very, very sad that they didn’t go earlier because had they gone earlier there wouldn’t have been any destruction,” she told Reuters.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s home was on fire on Saturday evening after protesters broke in and set it alight. Videos circulating on social media show flames lighting up the night sky.

Crowds had earlier overrun the official residence of Mr Rajapaksa, lounging in its state rooms and jumping in his pool.

Sri Lanka is suffering rampant inflation and is struggling to import food, fuel and medicine as it faces its worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The country has run out of foreign currency and has had to impose a ban on sales of petrol and diesel for private vehicles.

Protesters made their way into the house, chanting slogans and waving the national flag

Large numbers of protesters travelled to the capital from across the country, with officials telling AFP news agency that some had even “commandeered” trains to get there.

Mr Rajapaksa vacated his official residence on Friday as a safety precaution ahead of the planned protests, two defence ministry sources said, according to Reuters.

The BBC has been unable to confirm the president’s whereabouts. A source close to the PM said he was in a “safe place”.

Protesters made their way towards the president’s residence on Saturday morning, before breaking through barricades.

Hundreds of protesters made their way into the house, chanting slogans and waving the national flag.

Footage on social media soon showed people roaming through the house and splashing in the pool. Some could be seen emptying out a chest of drawers.

Although it is Mr Rajapaksa’s official residence, he usually sleeps at a separate house nearby.

Many protesters posed for selfies after entering the palace

Similar scenes could be witnessed at the prime minister’s house.

His office later announced that he had agreed to resign to make way for an all-party government. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said he was willing to quit to ensure the safety of civilians.

But soon after his announcement videos started circulating of his house up in flames. The prime minister lives with his family in a private home, known as Fifth Lane. He uses his official residence, called Temple Trees, for official business only.

Ousted in a day of fury

By Ethirajan Anbarasan, BBC News, Colombo

These are some extraordinary times for Sri Lanka.

After a day of fury and violence, the two senior leaders of the country have agreed to step down.

The news triggered jubilation at the main protest site in Colombo. Firecrackers were set off in many parts of the city.

I am at the Galle Face protest site – many protesters have started returning home, thousands are still present. Some have been singing and playing musical instruments, celebrating.

What a turnaround of events. A few days ago a photo of President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe smiling in parliament was widely shared on social media.

Many vented their anger, saying the two men appeared to be happy while millions were struggling to eat three meals a day. But a week is a long time in politics.

Read more here.

Bhavani Fonseka, a prominent human rights lawyer in Colombo, warned that the president’s announcement might not be enough to appease the people.

“Just two resignations alone will not satisfy the demands, the demand of a system change, but at least this is a start if the president and the prime minister depart,” she said.

“There has to be a peaceful transition of power which is yet to be seen.”

Last week, the authorities suspended sales of petrol and diesel for non-essential vehicles, in an attempt to preserve the country’s dwindling fuel stocks.

ri Lanka: The basics

  • Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It won independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up 99% of the country’s 22 million population.
  • One family of brothers has dominated for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the majority Sinhalese in 2009 when his government defeated Tamil separatist rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary at the time, is the current president but says he is standing down.
  • Now an economic crisis has led to fury on the streets: Soaring inflation has meant some foods, medication and fuel are in short supply, there are rolling blackouts and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the situation.
Protesters blame Gotabaya (right) and Mahinda Rajapaksa for the current crisis

The government has been trying to secure fuel on credit from countries including Russia – so far with no success.

It has requested emergency financial help and it blames the Covid-19 pandemic, which all but killed off Sri Lanka’s tourist trade – one of its biggest foreign currency earners – for the crisis.

But many experts say economic mismanagement is to blame.

Demonstrations have been taking place since March demanding that President Rajapaksa quit.

The deepening economic crisis saw the president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, forced to resign as prime minister in May.

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