The prime minister of Sri Lanka has resigned following weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the country’s president, step down for dragging the nation into its worst economic crisis in decades.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Twitter that he submitted his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a move that followed a violent attack by government supporters on the protesters, prompting authorities to deploy armed troops in the capital, Colombo.
Four people, including a ruling party politician, died in Monday’s violence, police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa told the Associated Press. President Rajapaksa imposed a countrywide curfew on Monday evening lasting until Wednesday morning.
For more than a month, protests have spread across the country, drawing people across ethnicities, religions and class.
For the first time, middle-class Sri Lankans also took to the streets in large numbers, marking a dramatic revolt by many former Rajapaksa supporters, some of whom have spent weeks protesting outside the president’s office.
The protests underscored a dramatic fall from favour of the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty for decades.
The brothers were once hailed as heroes by many of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority for ending the country’s 30-year civil war, and despite accusations of war atrocities, were firmly entrenched at the top of Sri Lankan politics until now.
The prime minister’s resignation comes as the country’s economy has swiftly unraveled in recent weeks. Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plunged, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts.
People have been forced to stand in lines for hours to buy essentials. Doctors have warned of crippling shortages of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on US$7 billion in foreign debt due this year alone.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially blamed Sri Lanka’s economic woes on global factors like the pandemic battering its tourism industry and the Russia-Ukraine conflict pushing up global oil prices.
But both he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, including conceding they should have sought an International Monetary Fund bailout sooner.
Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the IMF to set up a rescue plan but its progress depends on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors. Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway.
Sri Lanka was in financial trouble even before the Ukraine war drove up food and oil prices.
The Sri Lankan government has been running big budget deficits after cutting taxes in 2019 and struggling to collect taxes during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also has piled up massive foreign debt — much of it owed to China — and has scant foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports and to defend its embattled currency, the rupee.
Monday’s violence triggered widespread anger, with people singling out Rajapaksa supporters and attacking them in many parts of the country.
Ruling party MP Amarakeerthi Athukorale and his bodyguard were killed in Nittambuwa, about 30km north of Colombo after the car they were travelling in was intercepted by an angry crowd, the police spokesman said.
Athukorale or his bodyguard had fired gunshots at the protesters, who chased them and trapped them inside a building where their badly beaten bodies were recovered by police several hours later, the spokesman said.
Three people were hospitalised with gunshot wounds from the shots fired from the politician’s vehicle, he said.
Separately, in the Rajapaksas’ hometown of Weeraketiya, a crowd that tried to set fire to a local politician’s home was fired upon, killing two protesters, he said.
Protesters tried several times to break into the prime minister’s official residence on Monday night forcing police to fire tear gas.
Homes of government ministers and politicians supporting the Rajapaksas were also attacked and some set on fire. The memorial for the brothers’ parents was vandalised.