Impatient for Rajapaksa resignation, Sri Lankans storm government office

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Protesters stormed the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister on Wednesday, as thousands of demonstrators descended on the streets of the capital, once again demanding the ouster of the island nation’s top leaders as the deadline for the president’s promised resignation arrived.

Tense confrontations erupted early afternoon as security forces in riot gear fired multiple rounds of tear gas at protesters who climbed onto the walls and security towers. The crowd chanted “Victory to the struggle!” each time the forces fired tear gas.

The crowd broke through metal fences and then through the front gate. The forces – both police and military – stepped aside as the area erupted in joy.

Beleaguered Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early Wednesday, accompanied by his wife on an air force plane that left for the Maldives, defense officials said. “We are duty bound to safeguard the constitution, and the request for the plane was within the constitutional powers vested in the president,” said Group Capt. Dushan Wijesinghe, an air force spokesman.

Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of Parliament, said at a news briefing that Rajapaksa has appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence. Wickremesinghe previously offered to step down as premier, although he did not provide a timeline.

As of early afternoon, there was no word from Sri Lanka’s leaders on the anticipated resignations, adding to the chaos.

The crowd outside the prime minister’s office was made up largely of young university students, including many who had come to Colombo from other cities. “We want all 225 [lawmakers] to go,” said Lahiru Madusanka, 24, who was at a gate when he was hit by tear gas. “We have seen the same people all our lives.”

“We need a systemic change, not just a change of people in power,” said Sandun Ravihar, 23, who was heading toward the protest at the prime minister’s office.

Nilan Chamod, a 22-year-old protester hit by tear gas, said more would join the demonstrations if authorities attempted a crackdown.

Disgraced Sri Lankan president flees in predawn hours before resignation

At Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister that is now occupied by protesters, a man who had climbed a tree threatened to kill himself if the resignations did not come soon.

Rajapaksa, 73, has refused to step aside for months even as public fury has mounted against his family, whom many people hold responsible for the country’s economic ruin. But the dramatic takeover of his residence on Saturday by thousands of protesters forced his decision. Ignoring concerns of a crackdown, they swam in the president’s pool and even cooked dinner in his kitchen.

The storied Rajapaksa dynasty has dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades. But the recent years of the family rule were marred by allegations of corruption and disastrous economic policies. The country is beset by record inflation and medicine shortages and is nearly out of fuel and money to pay for it.

It is unclear what will happen to the Rajapaksa family now, with a frustrated public seeking a reckoning. Many demand that he and his family be tried for corruption, but Rajapaksa enjoys immunity as the sitting president.

“He fled like a coward without apologizing to the country,” Hirushi Lakshika, a 25-year-old protester near the prime minister’s residence, said of Rajapaksa’s early-morning departure.

On Tuesday, his brother, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, was blocked from fleeing the country on a flight to Dubai. The Hindu newspaper reported that the United States has rejected a recent visa request by the president.

Sri Lankan president to resign next week, says Parliament speaker, after protesters storm residence

Sri Lanka is undergoing its worst economic crisis in decades, with millions of people struggling for survival. The economy has “completely collapsed,” and the country is “bankrupt,” Wickremesinghe told Parliament in recent days.

Although the coronavirus pandemic was a huge factor, with lockdowns cratering the tourist industry on which many workers depend, policies of the Rajapaksa government also proved highly damaging. Among them were heavy tax cuts and an overnight ban on chemical fertilizers that paralyzed agricultural production.

The protest movement against the government began months ago, first forcing out the president’s older brother Mahinda as prime minister and other family members from cabinet positions.

But things worsened in recent weeks. As fuel shortages grew, schools and offices were closed. In a desperate attempt to stave off impending food shortages, the government asked workers to grow food at home. Rajapaksa unsuccessfully dialed Russia for fuel credit, and Wickremesing he tried to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.

Aid agencies have warned that the country needs millions of dollars in food aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on oil and grain prices globally have greatly exacerbated Sri Lanka’s woes

At the stately colonial-era compound where Rajapaksa lived amid elegance and lush gardens, the past few days resembled a carnival. The protesters who took over there remained past the weekend.

Prasad Sinniah, a 40-year-old marketing professional, was there Monday night with his children. “We wanted them all gone,” he said of the Rajapaksa family. “We lived comfortably until all this happened. Now, it’s a daily struggle.”

What to know about the upheaval in Sri Lanka

A former military officer, Rajapaksa lived in the United States for several years before returning to Sri Lanka in 2005. His brother Mahinda, who was then the president, appointed him as a senior defense official to oversee the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam , a Tamil separatist outfit in the country’s north.

By 2009, Sri Lankan forces had crushed the group, brought a 26-year-old civil war to an end and emerged as heroes for the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Human rights groups have accused the two brothers of committing war crimes, especially in the last and bloodiest phase of the war. They denied wrongdoing and were never charged.

Inside the collapse of the Rajapaksa dynasty in Sri Lanka

The Mahinda-led government lost power in 2015. Four years later, the family made a comeback.

In the wake of suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State that killed more than 250 people, Rajapaksa was elected president after an aggressive campaign that focused on national security and hard-line Sinhala nationalism. As president, he sought to increase his power by amending the constitution to grant himself the authority to appoint judges and allow dual nationals to serve in Parliament. The latter paved the way for his brother Basil, a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, to take over as finance minister.

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