Home News Protesters Enter Sri Lankan President’s Home as Crisis Escalates

Protesters Enter Sri Lankan President’s Home as Crisis Escalates

by Atlanta Business Journal

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Protesters in Sri Lanka entered the president’s residence and his office on Saturday, as thousands descended on the capital, Colombo, to register their growing fury over his government’s inability to address a crippling economic crisis.

The protesters are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family has dominated politics in Sri Lanka for much of the past two decades, accusing him of running the island nation’s economy into the ground through corruption and mismanagement.

Sri Lanka has run out of foreign-exchange reserves for imports of essential items like fuel and medicine, and the United Nations has warned that more than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people are at risk of food shortages.

The economic crisis is a major setback for the island nation that was still grappling with the legacy of a bloody three-decade civil war. The war, between the government and the Tamil Tiger insurgents who had taken up the cause of discrimination against the ethnic minority Tamils, ended in 2009. But many of its underlying causes have remained, with the Rajapaksa family continuing to cater to the majority Buddhist Sinhalese.

At least 42 people have been injured in clashes with security forces in the city, health officials said, after the police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters and fired shots into the air to try to disperse them.

Local news media showed footage of protesters breaching parts of the presidential residence as well as his secretariat, a separate building that houses his office.

Videos on social media showed protesters jumping into the pool in Mr. Rajapaksa’s residence, resting in bedrooms, and frying snacks in the presidential kitchen.

“I came here today to send the president home,” said Wasantha Kiruwaththuduwa, 50, who had walked 10 miles to join the protest. “Now the president must resign. If he wants peace to prevail he must step down.”

The whereabouts of Mr. Rajapaksa was not clear. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office only in May and is also facing demands to resign, called for an emergency meeting of the leaders of political parties.

Protests have been taking place for months, but the demonstration on Saturday appeared to be one of the biggest yet, even though the authorities had imposed an overnight curfew and halted trains in an attempt to stop people from reaching the capital.

On Friday, the United Nations urged the “Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing of assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence.”

Mr. Rajapaksa has defied intensifying calls for his departure, even as public pressure over the past five months has forced several members of his family, including his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the prime minister, to resign.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the family patriarch who previously served two terms as president, also dragged his feet in the face of protests. He resigned as prime minister only after protesters stormed his residence in May, forcing him to seek protection at a military base in the middle of the night.

Officials close to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president, have tried to buy time by shifting much of the blame for the mismanagement to members of the family who have been forced out of the government.

Four Rajapaksa brothers, and their sons and relatives, controlled the most important government ministries and portfolios. But protesters have continued to demand Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, maintaining a protest camp for more than three months just outside the presidential secretariat.

In recent months, the government has been mostly running on credit and financial assistance from partners like India, but it appears that the government has exhausted those options as well. Officials remain in talks with the International Monetary Fund to restructure Sri Lanka’s huge foreign debt so it can receive some relief funding for urgent needs.

Sri Lanka has repeatedly run out of fuel in recent months, with citizens lining up at gas stations, often in vain. Local news media have reported the deaths of at least 15 people in fuel lines, from heatstroke and other causes, since the beginning of the crisis.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.

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