Sri Lanka Prime Minister Quits in Escalating Crisis

The brother of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned as premier on Monday as weekslong protests over Asia’s fastest inflation turned violent, prompting the government to impose a curfew and call in the army.

Rohan Weliwita spoke on the phone to confirm that Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned. Sudeva Hathiarachchi, an official for the office, stated that Gotabayarajapaksa had accepted his resignation.

The resignation paves the way for the president to put opposition members in key government roles, one solution he’s proposed to end the crisis. But it’s unclear if the prime minister’s resignation will placate angry citizens, who have called for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down as well.

Late Monday night, violence against government legislators and their homes was being reported across the nation. The DailyMirror newspaper reported that the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in the southern district of Hambantota was set on fire and police were forced to use tear gas to disperse protesters who tried to storm the prime minister’s residence in Colombo’s Temple Trees neighborhood.

Multiple calls to the police spokesperson for confirmation went unanswered.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation is unlikely to have any impact on the ground in Sri Lanka since his brother remains in charge in a sign that the family doesn’t want to give in, said Smruti S. Pattanaik, a senior research fellow and Sri Lanka expert at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

“Protests are going to continue as the economic situation worsens,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for the people of Sri Lanka, negotiations with the IMF are going to be long drawn and even then the remedial measures will mean further hardships.”

The prime minister’s resignation would dissolve the federal cabinet, raising questions about who would lead Sri Lanka’s ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund for emergency funds to buy food and fuel. In Sri Lanka, where protests are ongoing due to the high prices of essential medicine and gasoline, as well as close to bankruptcy, payments have been suspended on its foreign debt.

A Sinhala language statement from the president’s office on Monday said that President Rajapaksa had said that the cabinet and prime minister should resign during their last meeting. A statement stated that the president invited all members of parliament to come together and form one national government.

The island nation imposed a nationwide curfew Monday as clashes erupted between government supporters and citizens demanding the Rajapaksas resign over the nation’s worst economic crisis since independence.

Television footage on Monday showed groups setting fire to tents put up by anti-government demonstrators outside the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, the capital. Similar scenes played out in front of the city’s waterfront promenade, where for weeks citizens have lined up peacefully to call for the president to step down.

According to local news, the army was also ordered by the government to end the violence at Colombo. No immediate comments were made by the army. The police used water cannons in dispersing the crowds, and to put out flames.

The U.S. ambassador and foreign diplomats to Sri Lanka condemned violent protesters. Ambassador from the United States said that anyone encouraging violence on Sri Lankan soil should be brought to justice and that peace must prevail.

After the curfew was enforced, a central bank press conference was cancelled.

The economic crisis has morphed into a political one as opposition and protesters demand the Rajapaksas’ ouster and for the country’s constitution be amended to roll back the sweeping executive powers of the presidency.

The violence erupted as IMF officials are set to hold virtual talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts from Monday through May 23 on the country’s request for support from the multilateral agency.

Sri Lanka’s dollar bonds due this July were indicated on Monday 0.49 cents lower at 46.04 cents on the dollar, reversing the 0.48 cents gain on Friday.

An official at Colombo’s main public hospital said at least 78 people had been brought in with injuries from the violence. Both the Rajapaksas condemned the day’s violence on Twitter.

The president declared a state emergency late Friday. This gives him broad powers to suspend laws and detain persons, as well as seize property.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa decried Monday’s violence in a tweet and warned against “serious repercussions if any peaceful protesters or media are harmed.”

—With assistance from Ramsey Al-Rikabi and Sudhi Ranjan Sen.

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