COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will step down Wednesday, the parliamentary speaker announced late Saturday, after a day that saw tens of thousands of protesters, stricken by crippling inflation, storming the seats of power. Some took over the presidential office and residence, jumping into its luxurious swimming pool and piling onto the presidential bed, while others set the prime minister’s home on fire.
The president’s departure, assuming it happens, is likely to disrupt the Rajapaksa family dynasty that dominated the country’s politics for decades and ultimately helped drive one of South Asia’s most prosperous nations to economic collapse and finally to uprising, uniting diverse groups in a country with a bloody history of ethnic conflict.
Although underlying domestic troubles caused most of Sri Lanka’s woes, they were made worse by a convergence of the same problems afflicting the rest of the world. The coronavirus pandemic destroyed Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, a major sector of the economy. Global spikes in food and energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine exacerbated the crisis, ballooning import bills just as the country ran out of foreign currency reserves.
Nirvikar Singh, an economics professor and South Asia expert at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told The Washington Post last month that the Sri Lankan government has been “astonishingly irresponsible and incompetent” at managing the country’s economic policy after the Rajapaksas took office in 2019.
Known for its beauty as well as its strife, the South Asian nation of 23 million crammed into an island slightly larger than West Virginia will still face a struggle to regain some semblance of political and financial stability.
The speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, said Rajapaksa will resign Wednesday to facilitate a smooth transition of power. Rajapaksa, whose hand was forced by demonstrators, had shifted out of the presidential house on Friday ahead of the planned protests. His whereabouts remain unknown. Many hold his family responsible for the country’s economic crisis.
Issuing an appeal for calm, the speaker asked protesters to return home and not to indulge in violence. Earlier in the evening, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had offered to resign to quell the growing unrest.
But the prime minister’s offer did nothing to placate the protesters. Late in the night, crowds barged into Wickremesinghe’s private home and set it on fire. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, and local media reported police officers had assaulted journalists outside the prime minister’s residence.
Rajapaksa’s imminent departure, after months of sustained protests, would mark a bitter end to the family’s long iron grip. Until recently, six members of the clan held powerful positions in the government, with Gotabaya, 73, as president and his older brother Mahinda, 76, as prime minister.
In the past, the brothers have bounced back into power from electoral losses. But the scenes from Saturday attest to a hardened public sentiment against the family, which is also facing allegations of corruption and amassing wealth.
Earlier in the day, thousands of people carrying the yellow-and-red Sri Lankan flag marched toward the president’s home, chanting, “Gota, go home.”
The police fired tear gas to deter the marchers, but they swept past the police officers and breached the barricades to reach the president’s office and residence. Scenes from local media showed people roaming through the president’s house and taking selfies or taking a dip in the swimming pool. Others made their way into the kitchen and were seen cooking. In the president’s gym, some tried out the weights while others were seen running on treadmills.
Sri Lanka has been engulfed in anti-government street protests for months, and Saturday’s was the latest expression of anger against the president, who clung to power even as his brother was ousted as prime minister in May.
“We are desperate,” said Himantha Wickremerathne, a 34-year-old lawyer who joined the protests. “People from all walks of life have united with one intention — to demand that the corrupt president who clearly does not have a mandate step down.”
Yasas Ratnayake, another protester, described it as a “historic moment” for the country. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.
People poured into Colombo from other regions by train. Sanath Jayasuriya, a former captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team, joined protesters at a major protest site. His message on Twitter to the president: “The siege is over. Your bastion has fallen.”
Outside the imposing presidential office, the crowd chanted, “You thought you could stop us, but here we are.” Police and security forces abandoned their posts as protesters stood atop water cannons and police vehicles. Dozens of people were injured in clashes throughout the day.
Sri Lanka’s economy got worse week by week over the past few months, and now fuel has nearly run out and the inflation rate on food has shot up to 80 percent. The country has defaulted on its foreign debt repayment and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package, though it has been struggling in the negotiations. Wickremesinghe told Parliament recently that the country is “bankrupt.”
“We are now participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt country. Therefore, we have to face a more difficult and complicated situation than previous negotiations,” he said.
On Wednesday, Rajapaksa asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for a credit line to purchase fuel. Neighbors such as India have stepped in to help Sri Lanka with food, fuel and humanitarian aid.
Experts say the crisis is a result of a slew of disastrous government policies, including huge tax cuts and a ban on the use of chemical fertilizers to promote organic farming that adversely hit agricultural production.
The day’s developments in Sri Lanka were a product of a “long history,” economist R. Ramakumar tweeted. He blamed the IMF’s “neoliberal loan packages” and the “right-wing authoritarian politics” of the Rajapaksa clan.
Gotabaya and Mahinda were until recently seen as heroes for their role in crushing the separatist Tamil liberation movement after decades of brutal civil war. Their platform of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism found popular support in the elections.
In 2019, the country was rocked by terrorist attacks, claimed by the Islamic State, that killed more than 250 people.
As the economy began to tank earlier this year, the brothers came under fire. In May, Mahinda was forced to resign as prime minister after his supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. A new cabinet was sworn in under Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister.
But for citizens facing economic ruin, survival has become challenging. More than 6 million people, about a quarter of the country’s population, are unsure where their next meal will come from, the World Food Program said on Wednesday.
The specter of more political instability threatens to send the embattled country deeper into crisis and could undermine its efforts to secure a bailout.
Masih reported from New Delhi.