Sri Lankan PM resigns amid protests over economic crisis

The country has been rocked by civil unrest since March, with protests turning violent at times as anger mounts over the government’s apparent mishandling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since declaring independence from Britain in 1948.

A nationwide curfew has been imposed after clashes erupted between ruling party supporters and anti-government protesters in the capital, Colombo, police said on Monday. The restrictions were announced shortly before Rajapaksa announced his resignation.

Anti-government protesters attacked buses carrying local officials traveling to Colombo on Monday morning to attend a meeting with the prime minister, according to national police.

At least 151 people have been admitted to hospital following violence during the protests, Colombo National Hospital said. Armed troops have been deployed in Colombo, according to the CNN team on the ground.

Rajapaksa’s office issued a statement announcing the 76-year-old veteran politician’s resignation, Reuters reported.

“A few moments ago, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his resignation letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” the statement said.

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the prime minister said he was stepping down to help form a caretaker unity government.

“Several stakeholders have indicated that the best solution to the current crisis is the formation of a multi-party interim government,” the letter said.

“Therefore, I tendered my resignation so that the next steps can be taken in accordance with the Constitution.”

His departure came during a day of chaos and violence that culminated in police imposing a curfew across the country.

The confrontation began with hundreds of ruling party supporters gathering outside the prime minister’s official residence before marching to an anti-government protest site outside the presidential office.

Police had formed a line ahead of the main road leading to the site, but did little to stop pro-government protesters from advancing, a Reuters witness said.

Special Task Force (STF) riot police pictured on Monday.

Pro-government supporters, some armed with iron bars, attacked anti-government protesters in the “Gota Go Gama” tent village that sprung up last month and became the focus of nationwide protests.

Police used tear gas canisters and water cannons to break up the confrontation, the first major clash between pro and anti-government supporters since protests began in late March.

Government supporters march on Monday.

“This is a peaceful protest,” Pasindu Senanayaka, an anti-government protester, told Reuters. “They attacked Gota Go Gama and set fire to our tents.”

“We are helpless now, we are begging for help,” Senanayaka said, as black smoke billowed from a nearby burning tent and parts of the protest camp were in disarray.

Dozens of paramilitary troops with riot shields and helmets were deployed to separate the two groups after the initial clashes. The military said it has also deployed troops to the area.

“Strongly condemn the acts of violence perpetrated by those who incite and participate, regardless of their political allegiance,” President Rajapaksa said in a tweet. “Violence will not solve the current problems.”

Clashes took place outside the Prime Minister's official residence.

Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and tax cuts, Sri Lanka has just $50 million in usable foreign exchange reserves, Finance Minister Ali Sabry said last week.

The government has approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout and will begin a virtual summit with IMF officials on Monday aimed at securing emergency aid.

Amid escalating anti-government protests, Rajapaksa’s government last week declared a state of emergency for the second time in five weeks, but public discontent has been simmering.

In recent days, long queues for cooking gas have often turned into impromptu protests as frustrated consumers block roads. National energy companies said they had run out of liquefied petroleum gas mainly used for cooking.

Sri Lanka needs at least 40,000 tons of gas every month, and the monthly import bill would be $40 million at current prices.

“We are a bankrupt nation,” said WHK Wegapitiya, chairman of Laugfs Gas, one of the country’s two main gas suppliers.

“Banks don’t have enough dollars to give us lines of credit and we can’t go to the black market. We’re struggling to keep our businesses afloat.”

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