Protesters stormed the prime minister’s office in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, hours after the embattled president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country, forced out by a popular uprising that has targeted the top leadership over the country’s dire economic crisis.
Rajapaksa went to the Maldives just before dawn Wednesday on a military aircraft with his wife, four days after he went into hiding, as protesters, furious over his refusal to step down, overran his residence and office.
His departure effectively ends the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa political dynasty that had a grip on power in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades.
But Rajapaksa’s exit did not appease protesters, who were incensed he had named Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, seen as a close ally, as acting president.
Hundreds gathered outside the heavily guarded prime minister’s office demanding that he also step down. Undeterred as police fired tear gas shells, dozens scaled the walls and broke through barriers to enter the building chanting “Go home Ranil, Go home Gota.” They stood on chairs, singing and shouting “that's what we said, don’t mess with us” and waved the Sri Lankan flag from a terrace in a triumphant mood. Some held mock meetings in board rooms.
Throngs of protesters also briefly entered the main state television station.
Wickremesinghe said in a televised statement that he would continue in office until a new government had been put in place. “They [the protesters] want to stop the parliamentary process. But we must respect the constitution.” He said he has created a committee of police and military chiefs and asked them to restore order.
A nationwide emergency and curfew were imposed earlier in the day, but it is unclear whether they remain in place.
The opposition also slammed his appointment, with opposition leader Sajith Premadasa calling it a "farce" and "tragedy."
Wickremesinghe has been at an undisclosed location since protesters set fire to his private residence Saturday, and he was not in his office when it was overrun.
The president has not yet formally resigned, but the speaker of parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, said that the president had communicated to him that he would send in his resignation, which he was supposed to hand in on Wednesday.
Reports said Rajapaksa had not stepped down earlier because he wanted to leave the country while his official position still gave him immunity from prosecution.
Earlier in the morning, as Sri Lanka woke up to the news that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled, thousands gathered in Colombo chanting “Gota, thief,” and “Victory to the Struggle” — the rallying cry of the protest movement that has forced out the president and other family members, who held top posts in his administration. While others had quit earlier, the president had clung to power.
Many were angry that he had escaped, saying he should have faced justice in the country.
Rajapaksa’s reputation as a strong leader, who, as a former defense secretary had crushed a Tamil separatist struggle, had helped him win a landslide victory in 2019 after Islamic extremists targeted churches in suicide attacks.
But a series of policy blunders by his government in the last two years has virtually bankrupted the country. Then, as inflation spiraled, food became unaffordable for many, and lines for fuel became longer, the popular tide turned against the president and other Rajapaksa family members, who for years had faced allegations of corruption.
“Earlier, people were willing to turn a blind eye to allegations of corruption as the Rajapaksas promoted an ultra-nationalist image of leaders who could protect the country,” says Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council in Colombo. “Now, people, including the Sinhala majority who were their main supporters, believe the country is poor because they stole the dollars.”
The government implemented populist tax cuts that some had warned could bankrupt the country. An abrupt switch to organic farming last year slashed crop yields. With tourism earnings battered by the pandemic, the country ran out of foreign exchange to import food and fuel.
Rajapaksa’s dramatic fall was a stunning reversal for a leader nicknamed “the Terminator” for his ruthless military campaign against Tamil rebels, which killed thousands of Tamil civilians. He also was accused of targeting critics.
“Their corruption, lack of expertise to govern, and arrogance and authoritarianism led to the popular uprising against them,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at the Center of Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “They did not create the economic crisis, but they exacerbated it to such an extent, they took it to a different level.”
With anger in the country running high as the weary public copes with the fallout of the economic collapse, lawmakers now face the challenge of putting in place a new administration.
Lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20, but they still must decide on the makeup of a new government. The task may not be easy – the ruling party that had been led by the Rajapaksas still commands a majority in parliament.