Sri Lankan protesters will not move until the president leaves office

On Sunday, Sri Lankan protesters refused to leave the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a day after storming his house, forcing him to flee with the navy and announce he would resign.

“Our struggle is not over,” student leader Lahiru Weerasekara told reporters the day after Rajapaksa, currently sheltering on a ship offshore, announced that he would step down on Wednesday.

“We won’t give up on this fight until he actually leaves.”

Saturday’s dramatic events were the culmination of months of protests by people exasperated by the South Asian island nation’s unprecedented economic crisis and the incompetence and corruption of the Rajapaksa clan.

Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in Colombo to demand that Rajapaksa take responsibility for the shortages of medicine, food and fuel that have brought the once relatively wealthy economy to its knees and caused misery for ordinary people.

After storming the gates of the colonial-era presidential palace, protesters lay in its lavish rooms, somersaulting into the compound’s swimming pool and rummaging through Rajapaksa’s clothes.

Just before, the troops had fired in the air to help Rajapaksa escape. The President then boarded a naval vessel which steamed to the safety of the island’s southern waters.

The presidential palace was a free-for-all on Sunday, with children and parents playing on a grand piano, admiring the expensive artwork, picnicking and taking turns sitting in the armchair Of the president.

“When rulers live in such luxury, they have no idea how the commoners get away with it,” Buddhist monk Sri Sumeda told AFP.

“It shows what can be done when people decide to exercise their power.”

The nearby beachfront office of Rajapaksa was also overrun on Saturday, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s residence was burnt down even after he too offered to resign.

– Resignation – Navy ship Rajapaksa, 73 – who clung to power even after deadly nationwide violence in May forced his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign as prime minister – has told the Speaker of Parliament that he would resign on Wednesday.

Security forces had tried on Saturday to disperse the huge crowds that invaded the administrative district of Colombo, triggering clashes.

Colombo National Hospital said 105 people were brought in on Saturday and 55 were still receiving treatment on Sunday, including one in “very critical” condition with a gunshot wound.

After midnight, the highest ranking officer in the Sri Lankan army, General Shavendra Silva, went on television to call for calm and “resolve the crisis situation in a peaceful and constitutional manner”.

A defense source said Rajapaksa would reach Trincomalee naval base in the northeast of the island later on Sunday.

Washington has urged Sri Lankan leaders to act quickly “with a commitment to the betterment of the nation – not just one political party.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that Russia’s restrictions on Ukrainian grain exports and the resulting price hike “may have contributed” to Sri Lanka’s economic turmoil.

The European Union urged “all parties to cooperate and focus on a peaceful, democratic and orderly transition”.

On Sunday, it was unclear who, if anyone, would be able to garner enough support among lawmakers to succeed Rajapaksa.

“We are heading towards dangerous uncertainty,” Tamil minority MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP. “Gota should have resigned immediately without leaving a power vacuum.”

– Default, desperation – Sri Lanka has suffered for months of commodity shortages, long power cuts and runaway inflation after running out of foreign currency to import basic necessities.

The government has defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF said on Sunday that it hoped for “a resolution of the current situation which will allow the resumption of our dialogue”.

Demonstrators had maintained a protest camp for months outside Rajapaksa’s office to demand his resignation.

The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters. Nine people died.

– Cricket continues – The unrest comes at the end of Australia‘s cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with the Pakistani side also on the island training for a series of matches starting next Saturday.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters scaled the walls of the picturesque Galle Fort overlooking where Sri Lanka and Australia played and chanted anti-Rajapaksa slogans.

“Today obviously the country is in turmoil, (with) people on the outside having their say. We could obviously hear it, I mean we can still hear it now,” said subsequently declared the Australian player Steve Smith.

Cricket officials said there were no plans to change the schedules for Australia and Pakistan and the sport was unaffected by the political unrest.

“There is no opposition to the matches being held. In fact, the fans support us and we have no reason to postpone,” a cricket board official told AFP.


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