COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Protesters retreated from government buildings Thursday in Sri Lanka, restoring a tenuous calm to the economically crippled country, and the embattled president at last emailed the resignation that demonstrators have sought for months.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled a day earlier under pressure from protesters enraged by the island nation’s economic collapse. According to an official, he emailed his resignation one day earlier than promised.
But with a fractured opposition and confusion over who is in charge, a solution to the country’s many woes seemed no closer following Rajapaksa’s departure. The president made his acting leader, the prime minister. This further upset the people.
Protesters demanded that both men leave the country and for unity to deal with widespread food and fuel shortages.
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Tendency at how the resignation was handled only increased tension. An aide to the speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament issued a statement that said the speaker had received the president’s resignation through the Sri Lankan Embassy in Singapore, but there was no immediate official announcement.
A Friday announcement was scheduled after legality and authenticity of the letter have been verified, according to the statement.
As word of the resignation spread, jubilant crowds gathered near the president’s office to celebrate. Dozens danced, cheered, waved the flag of Sri Lanka and sang Sinhalese at a small stage.
It was a festive atmosphere with many people dancing and hooting to music. Others sang their opinions into the microphone.
“To be validated like this is massive,” said Viraga Perera, an engineer who has been protesting since April. “On a global scale, we have led a movement that toppled a president with minimal force and violence. It’s a mix of victory and relief.”
The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and his administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. Rajapaksa has admitted some of the policies that contributed to the collapse. However, the Rajapaksa family denies the allegations.
Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and the official residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. On Wednesday, they seized Wickremesinghe’s office.
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Images of protesters inside the buildings — lounging on elegant sofas and beds, posing at officials’ desks and touring the opulent settings — have captured the world’s attention.
Initially, they pledged to keep those positions until a new government is in place. However, the movement changed tactics on Thursday because it was concerned about any increase in violence, which could weaken their message after clashes that occurred the night before outside of the Parliament, leaving many people injured.
“The fear was that there could be a crack in the trust they held for the struggle,” said Nuzly, a protest leader who goes by only one name. “We’ve shown what power of the people can do, but it doesn’t mean we have to occupy these places.”
Devinda Kodagode, another protest leader, told The Associated Press they planned to vacate official buildings after Parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said he was exploring legal options for the country in the wake of Rajapaksa’s departure.
Visaka Jayaweer described, as a performer, the bittersweet moment when the gates to the presidential palace were closed after all the people had left.
“Taking over his residence was a great moment. That was how we wanted him to leave. But it is also a great relief” to leave, she said. “We were worried if people would act out — many were angry to see the luxury he had been living in when they were outside, struggling to buy milk for their children.”
The country remains a powder keg, and the military warned Thursday that it had powers to respond in case of chaos — a message some found concerning.
Troops in green uniforms and camouflage vests arrived in armored vehicles to reinforce barricades around the Parliament, while protesters vowed to continue holding rallies outside the president’s office until a new government was in place.
The government has announced a second curfew in Colombo, and the surrounding suburbs, until Friday morning. Although some individuals ignored the earlier curfew, others are more likely to stay at home due to fuel scarcity.
Rajapaksa, his wife and their children fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday morning for the Maldives. They sailed in the dark aboard a military airplane. On Thursday, he went to Singapore, according to the city-state’s Foreign Ministry. He had not asked for asylum.
Since Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power it’s likely Rajapaksa wanted to plan his departure while he still had constitutional immunity and access to the plane.
These protests highlighted the tragic fall of Rajapaksa’s political clan, which has ruled Sri Lanka for the majority of the past 20 years.
As a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, who was president at the time, were hailed by the island’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Rajapaksa, despite being accused of atrocities during wartime, such as ordering attacks on Tamil civilians, and kidnapping journalists, remained highly popular with many Sri Lankans. The allegations have been repeatedly denied by Rajapaksa.
The shortages of basic necessities have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline was all the more shocking because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.
It was not immediately clear if Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has previously sought medical care there, including undergoing heart surgery.
Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president from their ranks on July 20 who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. This person might appoint the new prime minister. However, Parliament would have to approve this appointment.
Associated Press journalist Bharatha MallawarachiContributed to the report.
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