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Sri Lanka’s prime minister steps down after deadly clashes in Colombo

A worsening economic crisis and escalating anti-government protests threaten the Rajapaksa family’s grip on power

Sri Lankan police help an injured protester during May 9 clashes between government opponents and supporters near the prime minister's house in Colombo. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s powerful Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned Monday after violence between government supporters and furious protesters threatened to plunge the economically stricken nation into chaos.

The announcement by Rajapaksa, the older brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, marked a concession from the ruling political family to mounting public fury over an unprecedented economic crisis that has sent food and fuel prices soaring.

After months of peaceful protests, Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared determined to cling to power as recently as Monday morning, when he rallied supporters at his official residence in the capital, Colombo. Mayhem soon erupted.

The pro-Rajapaksa demonstrators, many bused in from the countryside, attacked peaceful protesters outside the residence and stormed the protest movement’s main gathering site, indiscriminately beating people with clubs. Hours later, according to local media reports and witnesses, the protesters gathered to retaliate. They chased and beat Rajapaksa supporters in the streets, burned buses and offices belonging to the ruling party and ransacked the residences of two mayors.

Supporters of Sri Lanka's ruling party stormed a protest site in Colombo on May 9, attacking anti-government demonstrators. (Video: Reuters)

The situation at the prime minister’s residence remained tense late into the evening, with local media reporting that protesters tried to storm the building while police fired tear gas into the crowd. The homes of at least five lawmakers from the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), the party led by the Rajapaksas, were torched.

Police said at least two people were killed in the capital and, according to officials at National Hospital in Colombo, at least 150 were injured. As clashes spread to other parts of the country, the government deployed troops and imposed a nationwide curfew.

Amid growing condemnation of his supporters’ part in the violence, Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, a former president once celebrated for his role in ending a decades-long civil war, announced on Twitter that he would step aside.

Murtaza Jafferjee, the head of the independent Advocata think tank, said Rajapaksa’s resignation was a serious blow to the family’s grip on Sri Lankan politics and raised the pressure on his younger brother, the president, known locally as Gota.

“Gota doesn’t have the political stature, but his brother was like the emperor of Sri Lanka who has been unceremoniously dumped,” Jafferjee said. “Now, if Gota goes, the anger will be defused. If he doesn’t, it will ratchet up.”

The prime minister’s decision to step down brings the volatile situation in Sri Lanka into an uncertain new phase. For weeks, the Rajapaksa brothers had offered to bring opposition leaders into a coalition government that could renegotiate the country’s massive debts with international creditors. But opposition leaders have demanded that the Rajapaksas leave government altogether, leading to a stalemate with the SLPP, which maintains a majority in Parliament.

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Gehan Gunatilleke, a political analyst, said Sri Lanka’s cabinet was formally dissolved with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, leaving the president few options.

“The events today, including the violence perpetrated on peaceful protesters, will probably increase the demand for the president to resign immediately,” he said.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s exit marks a watershed moment for a powerful dynasty that dominated Sri Lankan politics for years and returned triumphantly to power in 2019.

Born into a political family in southern Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa first served as president in 2005 and led the country through a bloody and protracted civil war against Tamil separatists in the north. Mahinda and his brother, Gotabaya, then the defense minister, were seen as heroes by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority for ending the conflict.

Besides the two brothers, several members of the family held cabinet or government posts until recently. As pressure on the family mounted last month, the entire cabinet — including junior Rajapaksa scions — submitted their resignations, but Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa held on.

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The prime minister’s resignation was “overdue but insufficient,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer and researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

“Sri Lanka has not had this kind of instability in decades,” she said. “The president must also resign. That is a clear demand of the protesters who have been peacefully protesting across Sri Lanka.”

Piyumi Fonseka and Hafeel Farisz in Colombo and Anant Gupta in New Delhi contributed to this report.