COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Protesters stormed the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister on Wednesday, once again taking to the streets of the capital and calling for the ouster of the island nation’s top leaders as a deadline for the president’s promised resignation came and went.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled the country before dawn. By midnight, with no announcement that he had officially stepped down, Sri Lanka remained in a state of calamitous limbo, gripped by confusion over who was making decisions and no closer to addressing the economic disaster that had forced Rajapaksa out.
His sudden departure created a political vacuum that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to fill, only to be confronted by protesters and opposition parties that decried Rajapaksa’s move to name him acting president.
The turmoil and violence, experts warned, would only worsen the country’s economic woes. Sri Lanka is beset by record inflation and shortages of medicines, and it is nearly out of fuel and money to pay for it.
Ganeshan Wignaraja, a Sri Lankan economist at the global affairs think tank ODI, said the ongoing instability was likely to “set back the economy by scaring off investors, tourists, inward remittances and even foreign aid. Without such vital foreign exchange, I fear that the economic crisis will take longer to sort out and the people will suffer more.”
The country’s already difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package probably will become even more challenging without stable political leadership.
As of Wednesday night, Rajapaksa was presumed to still be in Maldives, where he and his wife had flown aboard an air force plane. “We are duty-bound to safeguard the constitution, and the request for the plane was within the constitutional powers vested in the president,” said Group Capt. Dushan Wijesinghe, an air force spokesman.
Yet he faces a hostile public in Maldives, a small Muslim-majority nation in the Indian Ocean, because of his government’s response to Islamists’ suicide attacks in Colombo in 2019 — with policies that targeted Muslims and shut down their schools.
Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of Parliament, announced at a news briefing that Rajapaksa had appointed Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence. Wickremesinghe had previously offered to step down as premier, as demanded by protesters, although he did not provide a timeline.
In addition to the state of emergency, the acting president imposed a curfew in the nation’s Western province. He said he had asked the armed forces to take action to restore order, which only raised fears that the chaos and violence could escalate further.
“We can’t allow people who want to override the constitution to occupy the offices and houses,” he said, referring in part to the takeover of his ministerial office. “We have to protect the private citizens, too.”
Despite the curfew, more clashes were reported between protesters and security forces near the country’s Parliament, local media reported.
The crowd outside the prime minister’s office for much of the day was made up largely of young university students, including some who had come to Colombo from other cities. When they first passed through metal fences and then through the front gate, people erupted with cheers and songs.
But many people’s anger over Rajapaksa and his family — including relatives who served as ministers and even prime minister — is turning into a fury directed at the country’s entire political leadership. Many protesters said they want systemic change.
“We want all 225 [lawmakers] to go,” said Lahiru Madusanka, 24, who was at a gate when he was hit by tear gas. “We have seen the same people all our lives.”
The police crackdown brought some people out into the streets for the first time, with shouts of “victory to the struggle!” sounding again and again outside the compound.
“We expect cooking gas, but we are getting tear gas,” said Luke John, a pastor at a local church who was there with a friend to show solidarity with the cause. “The government has pushed us to do this.”
“Go home, Gota,” shouted Neyomal Wijesundara, a former travel company executive who lost his job during the economic downturn. “We want to rid our country of corrupt politicians.”
A 65-year-old homemaker named Bandulatha Kulatunga, who had voted for the Rajapaksas in past elections, walked three hours to Colombo to vent her frustration. Her family had to wait for a week to get their son surgery because the local hospital had no medical supplies.
“The young are risking their lives,” Kulatunga said. “We have to support them.”
Rajapaksa, 73, had refused to step aside for months even in the face of mounting public antagonism. The dramatic takeover of his residence last Saturday by thousands of protesters forced his decision, however. The protesters occupied the home, frolicking in the president’s swimming pool and cooking meals in his kitchen.
The storied Rajapaksa dynasty has dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades, though its recent years in power were marred by allegations of corruption and disastrous economic policies.
With a frustrated public seeking a reckoning, it’s unclear what will happen to the family in coming weeks and months. Many people blame them for the country’s economic ruin and are demanding that Rajapaksa and his relatives be tried for corruption.
“He fled like a coward without apologizing to the country,” said Hirushi Lakshika, a 25-year-old protester.
On Tuesday, the president’s brother, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, was blocked from leaving the country on a flight to Dubai. The Hindu newspaper reported that the United States rejected a recent visa request by the president. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.
Sri Lanka is undergoing its worst economic crisis in decades, with millions of people struggling for survival. The economy has “completely collapsed” and the country is “bankrupt,” Wickremesinghe recently told Parliament.
Though the coronavirus pandemic was a huge factor, with lockdowns cratering the tourism industry on which many workers depend, policies of the Rajapaksa government also proved highly damaging. Among them were heavy tax cuts and an overnight ban on chemical fertilizers that paralyzed agricultural production.
Demonstrations against the government began months ago, first pushing out the president’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and then forcing other family members from their positions.
As fuel shortages grew, schools and offices were closed. In a desperate attempt to stave off impending food shortages, the government asked workers to grow food at home. Rajapaksa unsuccessfully asked Russia for fuel credit, and Wickremesinghe approached the IMF for a bailout package.
Aid agencies have warned that the country needs millions of dollars of food aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on oil and grain prices globally have greatly exacerbated Sri Lanka’s woes.
At the stately colonial-era compound where Rajapaksa lived amid elegance and lush gardens, the past few days resembled a carnival. The protesters who took over there remained past the weekend.
Prasad Sinniah, 40, a marketing professional, showed up with his children. “We wanted them all gone,” he said of the Rajapaksa family. “We lived comfortably until all this happened. Now, it’s a daily struggle.”