Thousands protest against Sri Lanka’s new deputy president

Colombo, Sri Lanka-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka fled on a military jet on Wednesday after angry protesters occupied his home and office, and appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president during his stay abroad. Wickremesinghe immediately declared a national state of emergency to counter the fierce protests over the country’s economic and political collapse.

Rajapaksa had previously promised to resign on Wednesday, and Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywaldena said the president had promised him to still resign. If so, the new president will be elected by Parliament on 20 July. Wickremesinghe also promised to resign, but will not do so until a new government is formed.

His appointment as acting president was unable to calm the thousands of protesters who raided the grounds of his office on Wednesday and demanded that he resign. Over the weekend, protesters who wanted him to leave politics burned down his mansion.

The latest term of six Prime Ministers, Wickremesinghe, is arguably the most challenging. Appointed by Rajapaksa in May, he was brought in to restore his international credibility when the government negotiated an economic bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.

Wickremesinghe, also Minister of Finance, has become the public face of the economic collapse that has caused a serious shortage of food, fuel and medicine. He delivered a weekly speech in Congress when he began difficult negotiations with financial institutions, lenders, and allies to fill government funding and provide some relief to impatient citizens.

Sri Lankan leader
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe listens to questions he is talking about during an interview with the Associated Press at his office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 11, 2022. (Eranga Jayawardena / AP Photo)

He raised taxes and promised to overhaul the government, which has been increasingly concentrated under the president. It is a model that many people say that the country has been in crisis.

In his new job, he left little doubt about the significant future of the future. “The next few months will be the hardest part of our lives,” he told Sri Lanka in early June, a few weeks before he said the country had bottomed out in parliament. “Our economy has completely collapsed,” he said.

After all, observers say he lacked both the political burden and public support to get the job done. He is the only member of parliament in his party after suffering a humiliating defeat in the 2020 elections.

His reputation had already been tainted by his previous mission as Prime Minister when he had a difficult power-sharing arrangement with then-President Maithripala Sirisena. The disruption of communication between them killed 290 people in 2019 due to the expiration of intelligence that led to the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.

Wickremesinghe became increasingly unpopular due to the lack of rest for the public waiting for fuel, food and medicine. Many protesters say his appointment has simply postponed pressure on Rajapaksa to resign. But analysts are wondering if new leaders can do more, and instead fear that political uncertainty will only exacerbate the crisis.

Sri Lankan protest
Police used tear gas when protesters attacked Prime Minister Rajapla Machinha’s office, and on July 13, 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during an economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After fleeing the country, he demanded his resignation. (Eranga Jayawardena / AP Photo).

By Krutika Pathi

Associated Press