Sri Lanka: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flees, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe 'quits'

Thousands of protesters storm president's residence, torch PM's house



AFP
AFP

By Qadijah Irshad

Published: Sat 9 Jul 2022, 9:21 PM

Last updated: Sun 10 Jul 2022, 2:26 PM

In a day of high drama, angry protesters on Saturday stormed and occupied Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's residence and set fire to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private house in the capital Colombo, forcing the nation's heads to flee.

While Wickremesinghe agreed to resign in a statement, Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said Gotabaya has also agreed to step down on July 13.

Sources told Khaleej Times that the president and the prime minister have been evacuated to a secure location.

In the largest and angriest protest to date in a nation that has gone from a tourist haven to one of the poorest and hungriest countries in the region, men and women from different walks of life, backgrounds, professions and ethnicities defied a curfew imposed on Friday night to march on Colombo.

Thousands of them broke through police barriers and entered the white, colonial presidential residence, chanting "Gota Go Home" and "Ranil Go Home".

Footages of exuberant protesters bathing in the swimming pool inside the president’s home were widely circulated on social media, while military and security officials abandoned their posts.

AFP
AFP

Thousands broke open the gates of the sea-front presidential secretariat and the finance ministry, which have been the site of peaceful protests for four months now asking the Rajapaksa family to leave.

As protesters gathered around the prime minister's house earlier on Saturday, Wickremesinghe called an emergency all-party meeting. Opposition party leaders immediately called for both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to resign, and for the parliament speaker to take an acting position.

Following the meeting, the prime Minister's office released a statement saying that he is "willing to resign" from his post as premier.

"To ensure the continuation of the government including the safety of all citizens, I accept the best recommendation of the PARTY LEADERS today, to make way for an All-Party government and to facilitate this I will resign as Prime Minister," Wickremesinghe tweeted.

"We have been saving up and collecting money, little at a time to get to the protest," said S. Fathima who was one of the thousands who broke into the presidential house. Despite her financial limitations, Fathima, a 35-year-old clerk contributed towards the transportation of the thousands of protesters who arrived in busloads to the protest site. A mother of two, who also cares for two of her brother's orphaned children, she has been one of the thousands of Sri Lankans who has been going to the sea face promenade regularly, dubbed the "Gota Go Gama (Village)", demanding the ousting of the Rajapaksa family and cohorts.

AP
AP

In May, violent clashes between government supporters and members of the Aragalaya (The Stuggle) ended in the resignation of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa when protesters stormed into his official residence.

The organised civilian protest on Saturday saw thousands of men and women travelling into Colombo in busloads despite a severe shortage of fuel. Protesters also forced stalled trains to resume to carry them into the capital city.

"Just like the rest of Sri Lanka, my family too doesn't have enough money to eat anymore. In my household, we have cut down to two meals a day. But we still saved up, stayed in queues for three days and bought enough petrol for 2,500 Rupees to get here. But it's worth it," said Fathima, who was beaten up and dragged away by her hair during clashes incited by Rajapaksa supporters in May.

"I will come back again until the president and the prime minister resign. We've had enough of this. Enough tyranny, enough corruption and enough Rajapaksas and friends. We want our lives back."

Like Fathima, Maheshi Perera, a mother of three has been part of the "Gota Go" movement since its inception four months ago. Perera, together with her friends, walked for two-and-a-half hours to reach the protest site on Saturday. "We contributed money to fund diesel for buses to bring in the protesters, but we couldn't get on one ourselves," she said.

"We are asking the prime minister to step down too because the entire country now knows he's incapable and that he's protecting the Rajapaksas. We need a clean sweep. We want our country back, and we won't stop until we wipe out all the corrupt politicians," she said.

AP
AP

Sri Lankans have started calling for the resignation of 73-year-old prime minister along with the president, who was appointed premier by the president following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lankans believe that Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician and six-time prime minister has not "proved his worth", as the nation struggles with soaring inflation, continuing blackouts, and a severe shortage of food, fuel, medicine and other essentials.

The general public also accuses him of working hand in glove with the Rajapaksas, "protecting" the family that has been facing accusations of nepotism, corruption and war crimes allegations by the international community.

On Friday, the government imposed a curfew in the capital Colombo and outer Colombo that caused outrage amongst the public. As vehicles and pedestrians defied the curfew through the night and early morning, rights activists and organisations demanded the lifting of the curfew, citing it as violation of rights of expression. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka called the curfew "blatantly illegal and a violation of the fundamental rights of the people of our country". The curfew was lifted at 8am on Saturday morning.

Sri Lanka has been in an economic death spiral for months now. Thanks to a public debt crisis, exacerbated first by the pandemic, the island is in the throes of poverty, hunger and bankruptcy. Sri Lankans blame the Rajapaksa government led by the president and his older brother and strongman Mahinda, who was also the former president who won a three-decade war with the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The Rajapaksa family held five major portfolios in the cabinet after the president was elected into power by a sweeping majority Sinhalese votes.

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