Sri Lanka asks, ‘What now?’ after PM exit and night of fiery chaos
Posted on May 10th, 2022

MUNZA MUSHTAQ Courtesy Nikkei Asia

Opposition debates future as protesters insist President Rajapaksa must go too

COLOMBO — An eerie calm descended on Sri Lanka’s capital on Tuesday, the day after the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, with citizens harboring more questions than answers about what the future holds.

But while Colombo was relatively quiet after a night of violent clashes and burnings across the country — which killed at least seven, injured more than 200 and left properties owned by the Rajapaksa family and other politicians in smoldering ruins — fresh trouble was brewing in the east.

In the city of Trincomalee, protesters gathered outside a naval base on Tuesday afternoon, as rumors spread that former Prime Minister Rajapaksa and family members had taken refuge there and were attempting to flee the country. Rajapaksa is believed to have left the official prime minister’s residence in Colombo, known as “Temple Trees,” early Tuesday morning, once the military dispersed an angry crowd outside.

At the naval base, hundreds of demonstrators chanted: “Mahinda, come out. You robbed our money. Come out. You ruined our country. You’re a rogue.”

Mahinda’s resignation on Monday night — after a tumultuous day in which pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters — appeared to mark the stunning end to the career of a once-popular leader who previously served two terms as president and oversaw the end of a civil war. It was also a pivotal moment for a family dynasty that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for years, though his younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, remains president.

Much remained uncertain, however. Attempts by Nikkei Asia to contact Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son Namal, also a member of parliament, were unsuccessful. And nearly 24 hours since Mahinda’s resignation, Gotabaya had yet to issue a statement or name a successor.Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa: His resignation on May 9 marked a pivotal moment in the country’s political and economic crisis.   © Reuters

The president himself has been under intense pressure to resign. Many citizens blame him and his government for dire shortages of fuel, essentials and electricity, along with usable foreign reserves that have shrunk to as low as $50 million. Although Mahinda indicated that he hoped his resignation would enable the formation of an interim unity government to find a way out of the economic emergency, it was unclear whether the opposition would work with Gotabaya.

At the time of reporting, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya party led by opposition leader Sajith Premadasa was holding an urgent meeting on the way forward. Most opposition parties have been insisting that all the Rajapaksas, including Gotabaya, must go.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank, said that what Sri Lanka needs first is a new prime minister. But he said the president should then step aside. “He must nominate a prime minister, and then get it confirmed by parliament, and then he must resign,” Saravanamuttu said of Rajapaksa.

“The resignation of Mahinda can’t be seen as a sacrifice for Gotabaya to stay in power,” he added.

Saravanamuttu pointed to the constitution, which states that once a president resigns, the prime minister or speaker of parliament takes over. Then, in 30 days, parliament must appoint someone who can command confidence.

He agreed that Sri Lanka must hold elections as soon as possible, but argued that an interim government would need at least a year to negotiate assistance from the International Monetary Fund and deal with the sweeping executive powers of the president. “If we abolish the executive presidency then we need to go for a general election and not for a presidential election,” he said.Vehicles of Sri Lanka’s ruling party supporters are seen in a lake on May 10, after being pushed into the water during a clash of pro- and anti-government demonstrators near the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo.   © Reuters

Protesters who have been peacefully demonstrating for over a month opposite the presidential secretariat in Colombo continue to insist Gotabaya must also step down.

One said that despite an attack on the site by pro-Rajapaksa supporters on Monday, which damaged some of their tents, they have already started rebuilding. A curfew imposed to stem the violence has not dissuaded them, either. “We never stopped even though the site came under attack yesterday,” said protester Kishan Karunaratne.

He, too, insisted that Gotabaya must resign. “That has been our demand, and we are continuing it.”

Amid the political impasse, however, many experts fear the economic woes may only get worse.

W.A. Wijewardena, former deputy central bank governor, said that with the resignation of the prime minister, the government has ceased to function. “Sri Lanka doesn’t have a finance minister or finance secretary to offer credibility to negotiate with the IMF,” he told Nikkei Asia. Only the central bank governor “is left behind but with no government in existence, he doesn’t have mandate to do so.”

Wijewardena said the result is that Sri Lanka has now taken several steps backward in its drive for economic stability.

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