Sri Lanka's capital returns to calm as president and PM plan to resign

Protesters stormed the president's official residence on Saturday and later set fire to the prime minister's house

Security personnel guard the home of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on Sunday, a day after protesters set it on fire. Photo: AFP
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Calm returned to the streets of Sri Lanka's capital Colombo on Sunday after protesters stormed the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and set fire to the home of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The president and the prime minister both indicated that they intended to step down after Saturday's violence, which came amid acute shortages and rising prices caused by an economic collapse.

Protesters, many wrapped in the Sri Lankan flag, swarmed into Mr Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on Saturday after breaking through police barriers. Others later set fire to the private home of Mr Wickremesinghe.

Protesters were still present in the president's residence on Sunday, parts of which had been smashed. They say they will not leave until he is gone.

Neither Mr Rajapaksa nor Mr Wickremesinghe were in their residences when the buildings were attacked.

The president left on Friday as a precaution before the planned demonstration, two defence ministry sources told Reuters. His whereabouts are not clear.

Mr Rajapaksa, praised in the past as a hero for ending a 25-year insurgency by Tamil militants, plans to resign on Wednesday, the Speaker of Sri Lanka's Parliament said.

Mr Rajapaksa's "decision to step down on July 13 was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power", Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a video statement on Saturday. "I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace."

Sri Lankans have staged largely peaceful demonstration for months to demand his resignation. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned as prime minister in May.

Mr Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister who is seen as part of an uncaring ruling elite, also agreed to step down to make way for an all-party government, his office said.

Details of a transition of power are not yet clear. The speaker outlined proposals from a meeting of political parties on Saturday that would include Parliament picking an acting president within a week.

Opposition parties were scheduled to meet Sunday to discuss forming a new government.

The nation of 22 million people is short of food and fuel as depleting foreign reserves hit imports. Inflation rose to a record 54.6 per cent in June.

The economic crisis developed after the Covid-19 pandemic hammered Sri Lanka's tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers.

It has been compounded by large and growing government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on importing chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture. The fertiliser ban was reversed in November.

The International Monetary Fund, which has been in talks with the Sri Lankan government for a possible $3 billion bailout, said on Sunday it was monitoring the situation closely.

"We hope for a resolution of the current situation that will allow for resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported programme," the global lender said.

It said it was deeply concerned about the impact of the economic crisis on the people.

The US on Sunday urged Sri Lanka's MPs to address the situation "with a commitment to the betterment of the nation — not any one political party".

"We urge this government or any new, constitutionally selected government to work quickly to identify and implement solutions that will achieve long-term economic stability and address the Sri Lankan people's discontent over the worsening economic conditions, including power, food and fuel shortages," a State Department representative said.

Mr Rajapaksa has had a rocky relationship with the US over his dismissal of allegations of war crimes in the bloody finale of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war, and his close economic partnership with China.

Both the US and China have offered in recent weeks to support the once-prosperous island as it grapples with the fuel and food shortages.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: July 11, 2022, 11:53 AM