Protesters barricade themselves in Sri Lanka’s presidential palace | International

Hundreds of protesters occupy the looted presidential palace in Sri Lanka waiting for the resignations announced by the leaders of the Asian country to be effective. The Prime Minister’s press office announced on Monday that the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the entire Executive will resign and make way for a unity government “as previously announced.” Rajapaksa made public last Saturday that he will leave office next Wednesday, after thousands of people stormed his official residence, protesting the serious economic crisis and shortages in the country, the largest since independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. The still Sri Lankan leader has not made a statement or been seen in public since then, which has caused skepticism to grow, since, according to the Constitution, his resignation only has official value once he resigns in writing before Parliament, something that has not yet happened.

“All the ministers consulted consider that, as soon as an agreement is reached to form a multi-party government, they will be willing to cede their responsibilities,” they affirm this Monday from the office of the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe himself also assured on Saturday that he will step back, although he has not confirmed when.

Despite the fact that both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, both 73, maintain that they will “guarantee the peaceful transfer of power”, the leaders of the protests that led to the storming of the presidential residence and the prime minister’s house maintain that the protesters will continue occupying these and other official buildings until both resign. The presidential palace, one of the greatest symbols of power in the country, continues to become an attraction where the curious come to enjoy luxuries such as the swimming pool, the gym and even the president’s bed. In the mansion, the protesters found 17.85 million rupees (49,000 euros) in new bills, which were handed over to the police on Monday, according to local media. “The police received the cash and will deliver it today. [por este lunes] to justice,” a police spokesman said.

Experts consulted by Reuters believe that, once the president and the prime minister officially leave their functions, the president of Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, considered an ally of Rajapaksa, will provisionally assume the presidency and the succession process will begin, which, as authorized by law, it must last for a maximum period of 30 days. Abeywardena announced this Monday that Parliament will resume its functions next Friday and that the deputies will elect a new president on Wednesday, July 20. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2024.

The occupation of the homes of the president and prime minister has been the culmination of months of largely peaceful protests. Officially, the clashes on Saturday between the police and the protesters have not left any fatalities, although several dozen people have been injured. Since March, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country have demanded that the authorities assume their responsibility in the face of shortages of food, fuel and medicine, basic goods that are impossible to import due to the lack of foreign currency. Much of the population blames Rajapaksa directly for the collapse of an economy heavily dependent on tourism and remittances, which has been terribly hit by the covid-19 pandemic.

Protesters were playing carrom, a board game, at the Prime Minister's official residence in Colombo on Monday.
Protesters were playing carrom, a board game, at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Colombo on Monday.CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE (EFE)

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The whereabouts of the president and his family are currently unknown, a powerful clan that has dominated the political scene of this island country of 22 million inhabitants for the last two decades: two brothers have been leaders of the country, while other members have held different executive and parliamentary positions. After Defense Ministry sources noted that Rajapaksa had been escorted to safety before the crowd arrived at his palace, rumors have grown that the president may have taken up residence at a military base outside Colombo, the main city of the country, where he could be plotting his next plan.

Although that hypothesis has not been confirmed, it has a recent precedent. His older brother, Mahinda, asked for military help last May, when he was ousted as prime minister under popular pressure. The sixth president of the country (2005-2015) and premiere since 2019, he has refused to step down as protests calling for ridding the government of all Rajapaksas have intensified. Mahinda had to be evacuated to a naval base in the middle of the night after a mob surrounded his home and stormed the compound. In those weeks, nine people were killed and hundreds were injured in the riots. Protesters accuse this political dynasty of corruption and of having led a relatively prosperous nation to ruin through mismanagement. Successive governments created and maintained a double budget and current account deficit, which implies that the country’s national spending exceeds income, while the production of goods and services is insufficient. Inflation currently touched 55% in June and is expected to reach 70% in the coming months.

In an effort to conserve fuel—blackouts of up to 13 hours occur daily—in early July, Sri Lanka became the first country to restrict its sale to the public since the oil crisis of the 1970s. In addition, farmers with fewer resources are suffering the consequences of a ban that prevented the use of fertilizers for more than seven months last year, in favor of organic crops. Now, although this veto has been lifted, they face a shortage of chemicals to work their land in the midst of a food crisis.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Nandalal Weerasinghe, has warned that, if the current situation continues, there will be major delays in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other organizations for a rescue. Sri Lanka needs more than 5.9 billion euros in aid to get through the next six months, according to the authorities, who in recent weeks have accelerated talks with the IMF to obtain new sources of financing.

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