Sri Lankan opposition parties in talks after protesters ransack capital

Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have begun consultations to form a new government, a day after protesters stormed the president and prime ministers’ homes, forcing the country’s leadership to say they would step down.

Shavendra Silva, Sri Lanka’s chief of defense staff, on Sunday called for a peaceful resolution to a crisis that saw tens of thousands of people angered by rising prices and shortages of essential goods converge on the capital Colombo on Saturday. The US has also called on Sri Lanka’s ruling elite to resolve the crisis “quickly” and the EU called for a “peaceful, democratic and orderly transition”.

On Saturday protesters entered the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amid chants of “Gota, go home!” In chaotic scenes captured on film and video, protesters were seen storming into the white colonial-era residence, then cooking and showering in its rooms, lounging on furniture and beds, and splashing in its pool. Protesters broke into the private house of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set it ablaze.

Rajapaksa, part of a political family that Sri Lankans blame for their country’s worst economic crisis in decades, was not at home, and his whereabouts remain unknown a day later.

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker said the president would resign on July 13. The president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May as the economic crisis came to a head.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is part of a political family that Sri Lankans blame for their country’s worst economic crisis in decades © Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

On Sunday the president’s office released a statement saying that three ships carrying supplies of cooking gas were making their way to Sri Lanka, and that distribution of the commodity – which has been in acutely short supply – would resume normally from Tuesday.

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse is emerging as one of the starkest examples yet of the pressure emerging market countries are buckling under as the Covid-19 pandemic and surging food and fuel prices hamper their ability to secure essential goods and service their debt.

The IMF, which is negotiating a multibillion-dollar rescue package with Sri Lanka, on Sunday said it was closely monitoring the situation, and planned to continue technical discussions with the ministry of finance and central bank.

Protesters, including two children, sit on a bed in the president's official residence

Protesters stormed the president’s official residence amid chaotic scenes that saw them lounging on furniture and beds, and swimming in its pool © AFP/Getty Images

“We are deeply concerned about the impact of the ongoing economic crisis on the people, particularly the poor and vulnerable groups, and reaffirm our commitment to support Sri Lanka at this difficult time, in line with the IMF’s policies,” Peter Breuer and Masahiro Nozaki , the multilateral lender’s two senior officials in the country, said in a statement.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt repayments in May, and owes its creditors, who include private bondholders and countries including China, Japan and India, more than $ 50bn. The payments squeeze has led to acute shortages of fuel, medicine and other essentials.

Last week Sri Lanka’s central bank raised key interest rates to their highest levels in more than 20 years, increasing the Standing Deposit Facility Rate by 100 basis points to 14.5 per cent.

Activists called on the government to take action. “It is crucial that Sri Lankan authorities heed the voices of the people who gathered in large numbers to demand responsible and rights-respecting government,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director with Human Rights Watch.

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