Sri Lanka's PM and acting President Wickremesinghe forms panel to de-escalate tensions

Protesters throw bottles of water at army personnel outside the office of Sri Lanka's prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Protesters sit around a meeting table at the office of Sri Lanka's prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Protesters gather inside the office building of Sri Lanka's prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Army personnel stand guard as protesters gather inside the office building of Sri Lanka's prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Protesters hold Sri Lankan flags as they stand on top of the office of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters enter the building of the office of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters stand on the wall of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office premises in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO (AFP, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Sri Lanka had to impose emergency rule because it received intelligence reports that attempts were on to take over the PM’s office and air force chief’s house, Prime Minister and Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a televised address on Wednesday (July 13).

Speaking on a private TV channel – after protesters took control of the state broadcaster and prime minister’s office – Mr Wickremesinghe said he had formed a committee that includes the police and military chief to de-escalate the situation. He didn’t say how long the emergency would last.

He reiterated that parliament will choose a president on July 20. “We cannot tear up the Constitution,” Mr Wickremesinghe said, adding that some elements aided by politicians were trying to achieve their personal goals by stoking unrest. He didn’t name anyone.

Protesters want Mr Wickremesinghe to resign. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the bankrupt nation earlier on Wednesday and is expected to resign soon.

Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Mr Wickremesinghe’s office on Wednesday, hours after he was named acting president, witnesses said.

Men and women breached military defences and entered the premier’s office to raise national flags, witnesses told AFP after police and troops failed to hold back crowds despite firing tear gas and water cannon.

The protesters see him as an ally of the Rajapaksa clan and want him out.

“We want Ranil to step down,” said S. Shashidharan, a 30-year-old who said he was tear gassed outside the prime minister’s office. “Arrest all those who helped Gota (the president) to escape. We want our stolen money back.”

Mr Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president as incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa was overseas, the parliamentary speaker had announced earlier as thousands of protesters demanded both men step down.

“Because of his absence from the country, President Rajapaksa told me that he has appointed the prime minister to act as the president in line with the constitution,” Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said in a brief televised statement.

Mr Rajapaksa is also expected to send his resignation letter on Wednesday, Mr Abeywardana said.

“The president got in touch with me over the phone and said that he will ensure that his resignation letter will be received by me today,” Mr Abeywardena said in a video statement.

“I appeal to the public to have confidence in the parliamentary process we have outlined to appoint a new president on the 20th and be peaceful.”

A nationwide state of emergency was declared on Wednesday hours after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country, as protests against the government continued.

“Since the president is out of the country, an emergency has been declared to deal with the situation in the country,” Dinouk Colombage, spokesman for Mr Wickremesinghe, told AFP.

Police said they were also imposing an indefinite curfew across the Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, to contain growing protests after Mr Rajapaksa flew to the Maldives in a military aircraft.

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State broadcaster Rupavahini went off air on Wednesday after being seized by protesters.

At about 1.02pm (3.32pm Singapore time) in Colombo - shortly after the protester-imposed deadline for Mr Rajapaksa to submit his resignation - Rupavahini telecast images of one of its anchors introducing two protesters, shortly after which the channel played the national anthem and went off air.

“We have not cast a stone at Rupavahini,” one of the protesters said. “We only ask that you join the people in our struggle rather than taking the side of the government in power. We thank the staff of Rupavahini for assisting us.”

Over at Mr Rajapaksa's official residence, hundreds of people queued peacefully to tour the compound. 

People tour Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on July 12, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Tens of thousands of men and women overran Mr Rajapaksa’s official residence last Saturday, forcing him to escape to a military base and later flee the country.

Officials said he had promised to resign on Wednesday. 

K.K. Subasinghe was one of those in the line waiting to go into the home of the once-feared former soldier, who boarded a Sri Lankan air force aircraft and fled to the Maldives early on Wednesday morning, accompanied by his wife and two bodyguards.

Subasinghe said he too served in the Sri Lankan army, fighting in the country’s bloody civil war against Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The war ended in 2009, under the direction of Mr Rajapaksa, then the defence secretary.

But Subasinghe said he had little admiration for Mr Rajapaksa, and had brought his family and brother along to show them the opulence of the presidential residence.

“I wanted to give them a glimpse of their (the Rajapaksas’) luxurious lifestyle,” Subasinghe said, dressed in a collared t-shirt and khaki pants, holding a green plastic bag.

“While we were suffering, they asked us to grow our own food and ride on cycles.”

People tour Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on July 12, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Subasinghe said he expected massive celebrations when Mr Rajapaksa finally resigned, although there was still some trepidation among others in the queue that he would actually quit.

“We’ll celebrate this momentous day,” he said. “I think that the protest will become stronger than July 9 if he doesn’t resign.”

The crowds circled the gardens surrounding the two-storey colonial-era building, where some napped in the grass and others took selfies on their mobile phones.

People lounge at the gardens surrounding Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on July 11, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Volunteers guided groups past the president’s swimming pool, where protesters had partied last week. A lone young man was in the murky grey waters as they passed by.

Inside the main building, Subasinghe and his family could only access a small portion of the ground floor. The rest, including the bedroom and large halls, had been roped off by protest organisers.

Next to an adjoining building, a BMW 7 series luxury sedan stood parked, its fuel cap pried open.

“I never expected this sort of luxury,” said Subasinghe’s elder brother, M.D. Chandradasa, as they finished their tour of the residence.

“It’s okay if you’re the head of state but what about us poor people?”

Despite the uncertainty over whether Mr Rajapaksa would resign on Wednesday, as the speaker of Parliament has repeatedly said he would, and who might replace him, protesters were jubilant with the confidence that the end of an era was near.

A man waves Sri Lanka's national flag outside presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

"This is a historical day for us," said Randika Sandaruwan, 26, who took the train on Tuesday night with nine friends from the nearby city of Negombo. "We needed to kick out our president, and now Gota is gone," he said, using a nickname for the president.

Shameen Opanayake, 22, sat on the front steps with his mother and two sisters. They had taken an early bus from their home in Kalutara, south of the capital.

"If he doesn't step down today," he said, referring to the president, "I don't think that this place will remain calm. The whole country is rejecting him."

Protests against the economic crisis have simmered for months and came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over key government buildings in Colombo, blaming the Rajapaksas and their allies for runaway inflation, corruption and a severe lack of fuel and medicines.

Government sources and aides said the president’s brothers, former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, were still in Sri Lanka.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left the main international airport near Colombo aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane early on Wednesday, the air force said in a statement.

A government source and a person close to Mr Rajapaksa said he was in Male, the capital of the Maldives. The president would most likely proceed to another Asian country from there, the government source said.

Mr Rajapaksa was due to step down as president on Wednesday to make way for a unity government after protesters stormed his and the prime minister’s official residences.

Protesters cheer inside the president's official residence in Colombo on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, told Reuters partner ANI he was yet to receive any communication from Mr Rajapaksa. A source in the ruling party said the president would send in a letter of resignation later on Wednesday.

Protest leaders say Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is allied to the Rajapaksas and have warned of a “decisive fight” if he does not resign by Wednesday afternoon.

“If we don’t hear of the resignation of the president and the prime minister by the evening, we may have to gather back and take over parliament or another government building,” said Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne, one of the organisers of recent protests.

“We are strongly against the Gota-Ranil government. Both have to go.” Amid the economic and political chaos, Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond prices hit fresh record lows on Wednesday.

The US Embassy in Colombo, which is in the central district of the city, said it was cancelling consular services for the afternoon and for Thursday as a precautionary measure.

Victim of pandemic 

The island nation’s tourism-dependent economy was hammered first by the Covid-19 pandemic and then suffered from a fall in remittances from overseas Sri Lankans. A ban on chemical fertilisers hit output although the ban was later reversed.

The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that affected government finances while shrinking foreign reserves curtailed imports of fuel, food and medicines.

Petrol has been severely rationed and long lines have formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6 per cent last month and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70 per cent in coming months.

People queue to collect Liquefied Petroleum Gas cylinders at a distribution point in Colombo on July 12, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, resigned as prime minister in May after protests against the family turned violent. He remained in hiding at a military base in the east of the country for some days before returning to Colombo.

In May, the Rajapaksa government appointed Mohammed Nasheed, the speaker of the Maldives parliament and a former president, to help coordinate foreign assistance for crisis-hit Sri Lanka.

The same month, Nasheed publicly denied allegations that he was helping Mahinda Rajapaksa secure safe haven in the Maldives.

Media reports in the Maldives said the Sri Lankan president had arrived in the country early on Wednesday although Reuters was unable to independently verify this.

A Maldives government spokesman did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

On Tuesday, Sri Lankan immigration officials prevented Basil Rajapaksa from flying out of the country.

It was not clear where Basil Rajapaksa, who also holds US citizenship, was trying to go. He resigned as finance minister in early April amid heavy street protests and quit his seat in parliament in June.

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