(Colombo) After two days of deadly clashes, the disputed President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, announced on Wednesday that he was giving up most of his executive powers and quickly appointing a new government, after a warning from the Central Bank that the economy was on the verge of collapse.
Since Monday, the violence accompanying the anti-government protests has left nine dead and more than 225 injured, according to the police, in this island of 22 million inhabitants mired in the worst economic crisis in its history.
The population is overwhelmed by months of power cuts and severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Peaceful protests have been calling for the president’s resignation for weeks.
In his first statement to the country since the protests began, Rajapaksa, 72, who enjoys sweeping powers and command of the armed forces, promised a unity government would be formed in the coming days.
“I will appoint a prime minister who will lead a majority in parliament and inspire confidence in the people,” he said. He did not name the successor to the former prime minister, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned on Monday.
“I will work to empower parliament and activate key elements of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution,” the president added, referring to the democratic reforms he rolled back soon after his election in 2019.
This promise to reinstate the 19th Amendment would strip Mr. Rajapaksa of the power to control appointments at the highest levels of the civil service, police, electoral services and judiciary.
Earlier in the day, the main opposition party, the SJB, had already reaffirmed that it would not participate in a government under the authority of the current president.
“Violence is provoked (by authorities) in order to establish military rule,” opposition leader Sajith Premadasa wrote on Twitter, calling for “rule of law” to be “upheld by the constitution and not by ARMS”.
A curfew is in effect across the country. In Colombo, thousands of soldiers transported in armored personnel carriers patrolled the deserted streets, with instructions to shoot on sight anyone attacking property or committing acts of violence. Only a few demonstrators defied the curfew by maintaining their camp in front of the offices of the presidency.
“This is no longer spontaneous anger, but organized violence,” a senior police official told AFP.
Sri Lanka’s top defense official, Kamal Gunaratne, has ruled out a military coup, saying he asked the military to help the police because of the “dangerousness of the situation”.
“When there is a dangerous situation in the country, powers are given to the military to deal with it,” he said. “Never think that we are trying to take over.”
A few hours before the presidential speech, the governor of the Central Bank, Nandalal Weerasinghe, had deemed the situation untenable.
“If there is no government in the next two days, the economy will collapse and no one can save it,” he warned. “I will resign if there is no immediate action to form a government.”
Monday’s resignation of the prime minister and brother of the president has created a power vacuum, the governor argued, adding that the ensuing violence has derailed his economic recovery plans.
After a luxury hotel owned by a member of the Rajapaksa clan in the south of the country was set on fire late Tuesday night, police fired in several places in the air to disperse crowds burning vehicles.
Government supporters, transported from the provinces to Colombo by bus and galvanized by the Prime Minister, set fire to the powder Monday by attacking anti-Rajapaksa demonstrators. The attack led to the resignation of the head of government, also leader of the Rajapaksa clan, a few hours later.
Shortly before dawn on Tuesday, he had to be exfiltrated by the army from his official residence, besieged in Colombo by an angry mob.
This resignation is “an important event”, said Kaushalya Fernando, actress and human rights activist. But “that’s not enough,” she insisted: “we want the whole Rajapaksa clan out, they are so corrupt.”
Echoing calls from the United Nations and the European Union, the United States has expressed concern about the escalation of violence and the deployment of the army.
“Peaceful protesters should never be subjected to violence or intimidation,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.
Sri Lanka, in default since April 12 on its external debt, valued at $51 billion, is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a possible bailout.
“We are closely monitoring developments […] and are concerned about rising social tensions and violence,” said Masahiro Nozaki, IMF mission chief in Sri Lanka.