Sri Lankan PM resigns after protests over worst economic crisis in decades

An official said Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the president, step down following the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

An aide to the prime minister, Wijayananda Herath, confirmed that Rajapaksa had submitted a resignation letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There was no immediate official confirmation from the president’s office.

The resignation follows attacks by Rajapaksa supporters on peaceful protesters demanding the brothers leave office.

The prime minister’s resignation means the entire cabinet is dissolved, paving the way for a new government.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended the repayment of its foreign loans. A severe shortage of foreign exchange has resulted in severe shortages of imported essentials such as fuel, cooking gas and medicine.

on one’s last legs

Authorities deployed armed troops to the capital, Colombo, on Monday hours after government supporters attacked protesters camping outside the offices of the country’s president and prime minister, as unions began a week of protests.

Supporters of the Prime Minister gathered inside his office earlier on Monday, urging him to ignore protesters’ demand to step down and asking him to stay in office.

A man shouts slogans demanding cooking gas cylinders as a group of people block an intersection to protest a shortage of essentials in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and police used force against peaceful protesters. (Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press)

After the meeting, they went to the office, where protesters have been demonstrating for several days.

Local TV channel Sirasa showed pro-government supporters attacking protesters with batons and iron bars, tearing down and then setting fire to their tents.

After the attack, hundreds of armed soldiers were deployed in the capital.

At Colombo’s main hospital, 23 injured people were admitted, but none in critical condition, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

31 days of protests

The attack came as protesters marked their 31st day outside the offices of the President and Prime Minister. Similar protests have spread to other places, with people setting up camps opposite the prime minister’s residence and in other towns across the country.

So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, although three out of five Rajapaksas who were lawmakers resigned from their ministerial posts in April.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Hard currency shortages have also hampered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which jumped to 18.7% in March.

A Sri Lankan policeman, left, and a civilian help an anti-government protester who was beaten by government supporters during a clash in Colombo. (Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press)

People blocked main roads demanding gasoline and fuel. On Sunday, local television channel Hiru showed residents in some areas fighting over fuel.

Sri Lanka was due to pay US$7 billion of its external debt this year out of nearly $25 billion it is due to pay by 2026. Its total external debt is $51 billion.

Sri Lanka’s finance minister announced earlier this week that the country’s usable foreign exchange reserves had fallen below $50 million.

Electricity cuts across the country as fuel runs out

As oil prices soar during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running low. Authorities have announced that nationwide power cuts will increase to about four a day as they cannot supply enough fuel to power stations.

Protesters have taken to the streets since March, claiming Prime Minister Rajapaksa and his family – who have dominated almost every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the past 20 years – are responsible for the crisis.

A Sri Lankan government supporter carries a national flag after attacking anti-government protesters outside the president’s office in Colombo on Monday. (Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press)

On Friday, Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency, giving him the power to authorize detentions, seizure of property and search of any premises. It can also modify or suspend any law in the interest of public safety and for the maintenance of essential supplies. Diplomats and rights groups have expressed concern over the decision.

Sri Lanka has held talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure an immediate funding facility as well as a long-term bailout, but has been told its progress will depend on debt restructuring negotiations with creditors .

Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get started.