Thousands of protesters were refusing to budge from government residencesThe U.S. president and its prime minister occupied both homes for days on Monday. A wave of national outrage over the cost of living in the poor country appeared set to topple its leaders, and the largely peaceful picketing of both men’s grand homes – and the demonstrators’ refusal to leave – was a literal and symbolic representation of defiance.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed on Monday that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would resign on Wednesday – meeting a key demand from protesters.
Large-scale demonstrations took place over the weekend in the South Asian island nation of 22 million people, located just off India’s southeast coast. Sri Lanka has been battling an economic crisis for months, and feeling that their plight is not only unresolved but not recognized by their leaders, thousands of angry protesters stormed the President’s official residence in Colombo on Saturday.
Protesters also torched the private residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday. He has refused to step down until a new government is formed.
The protesters are demanding the immediate removal of the two men, accusing them of mismanagement of Sri Lanka’s economy.
Rajapaksa has not spoken publicly since the attack on his residence on Saturday. Reports suggest that he may be on a Navy ship off the coast.
Protesters have refused to leave his beach mansion, despite assurances from the head of the country’s parliament that the president would step down, although the president himself has not been seen for several days.
Videos posted online and circulated by news outlets showed protesters running through the lavish residence, some taking a dip in the garden pool while others lounging in beds or taking advantage of showers.
How did it come to this?
Sri Lanka has been grappling with cash crunch for months and struggling to pay for imports of essential items, including food and fuel. The government blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a main economic driver in Sri Lanka, for reducing the country’s tourism income. But economists say there are other factors, including political corruption and economic mismanagement.
The country has defaulted on its huge foreign debt of $51 billion and is unable to make interest payments on its loans. While the government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion bailout package, it is currently forced to rely on help from India and China.
President Rajapaksa has also been criticized for the huge tax cuts introduced in 2019, which cost the government more than $1.4 billion a year. His government last year also banned chemical fertilizers to promote organic farming – a move that took farmers by surprise and resulted in crop failures, eventually forcing the government to import food. The shortage of foreign exchange increased.
The value of the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by as much as 80% in the past few months, making imports more expensive and worsening inflation. Food costs have gone up by more than 50%. A confluence of factors has put Sri Lanka on the verge of national bankruptcy, essentially leaving hardly any cash to import, and has made everyday life a struggle for millions.
Over the past few months, Sri Lankans have suffered daily power cuts of up to 12 hours in the scorching heat, a severe fuel shortage that saw thousands of people lined up at gas stations just to get a gallon or so of expensive fuel, and An acute shortage of food and medicines.
Anger at the government only broke out when protesters began breaking into leaders’ homes and exposing the president’s level of luxury, while many in his country faced hunger.
What’s next for Sri Lanka?
It could take weeks or months for the country’s food and fuel supplies to return to normal, even if the IMF offers a bailout package soon.
Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abhayawardene has said a new coalition government will need to be formed within a week after the president officially steps down, and opposition political parties held talks on Sunday to discuss the formation of a new government. More talks were expected in the coming days.
According to the country’s constitution, if both the President and the Prime Minister resign, the Speaker of the Parliament must take over as the interim President.
But with the apparent, abrupt collapse of the government, it is unclear when a new full-fledged government might be formed, or whether whatever leadership emerges will be relied upon by the country’s people or foreign entities trying to help the island nation. Will go
In addition to a possible IMF bailout, the World Bank has agreed to lend Sri Lanka $600 million. India has pledged $1.9 billion in aid and may lend an additional $1.5 billion for imports. The G7 groupings – the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK – have said they will assist Sri Lanka in securing debt relief.
But it looked like there were still days left for the beleaguered Sri Lankans if a potential bailout could begin to provide some relief on the ground.