Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is willing to resign to make way for all-party government, his office said in a statement on Saturday (July 9), after thousands of protesters stormed the president’s official residence in Colombo.
Soldiers and police were unable to hold back the crowd of chanting protesters demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, as public anger grows over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
Protesters including Buddhist priests on Saturday carried black and national flags and shouted “Gota go home,” using a common shortened version of the president’s name.
Police fired shots and tear gas in the air but were unable to stop the angry crowd from surrounding the presidential residence, according to a witness.
Live video broadcast on Facebook by local news outlet News Cutter and sent to Reuters showed protesters inside the residence packing rooms and corridors, some lying on a bed, and chanting slogans demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation.
Hundreds milled about in the grounds of the colonial-era whitewashed residence, with no security personnel in sight.
At least 39 people, including two police officers, were injured and hospitalised during the protests, hospital sources told Reuters.
Despite a severe shortage of fuel that has stalled transport services, demonstrators packed into buses, trains and trucks from several parts of the country to reach Colombo for the weekend demonstration.
Crowds gathered near Colombo’s seafront and called for Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government to resign.
“They must go. It is time for us to think of the country,” said bus owner and retired army commando, Sisira Kumara at the permanent protest site near the seafront in the city.
Rajapaksa left the official residence on Friday (July 8) as a safety precaution ahead of the planned weekend demonstration, two defence ministry sources said. Reuters could not immediately confirm the president’s whereabouts.
Wickremesinghe held talks with several political party leaders to decide what steps to take following the unrest.
“Wickremesinghe has told the party leaders that he is willing to resign as Prime Minister and make way for an all-party government to take over,” his office said in a statement.
Wickremesinghe had also been moved to a secure location, a government source told Reuters.
The Indian Ocean island of 22 million people is struggling under a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
Soaring inflation, which reached a record 54.6% in June and is expected to hit 70% in the coming months, has heaped hardship on the population.
The crisis comes after COVID-19 hammered the tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers.
It has been compounded by the build-up of hefty government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on the import of chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture. The fertiliser ban was reversed in November.
However, many blame the country’s decline on economic mismanagement by Rajapaksa and there have been months of largely peaceful protests demanding his resignation.