Protesters leave seized palace in Sri Lanka, limbo

COLOMBO (AP) — On Thursday, protesters in Sri Lanka began to flee from the government buildings that they had seized. Military troops also reinforced security at Parliament, establishing a fragile calm in a country experiencing both political instability and economic collapse.

The embattled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country a day before, under protestors furious at the economic collapse of the island nation. He did not resign, as he promised. Instead, he made his equally disgraced prime minister act in his place.

Protesters demand both men and unity in government to deal with the widespread food and fuel shortages. After Rajapaksa’s resignation, there was no clear solution due to the fractured opposition and uncertainty over who was responsible. The president, who was said to be still in motion, left the Maldives on Thursday to head for Singapore, according to an anonymous source.

Rajapaksa, his wife and their two children fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday morning aboard an Air Force plane. This was as protesters took over the government buildings demanding that he step down. Rajapaksa had promised to do it over the weekend, but instead he named his prime minister acting president.

On Thursday, the government declared a curfew for Colombo’s capital and surrounding areas. Protesters had been occupying the palace since the weekend and were now withdrawing. As they were leaving, some were seen rolling a red carpet inside the palace.

In anticipation of more protests following a group’s attempt to storm Parliament’s entry a day before, soldiers in camouflage vests and green military uniforms arrived on Thursday by armored personnel carrier to strengthen barricades surrounding the building.

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Some protesters posted videos to social media asking for others not storm the Parliament. They feared an increase in violence.

Protest leader Devinda Kody told The Associated Press that they had been forced to vacate official buildings by the Speaker of Parliament. He said he wanted legal options since Rajapaksa did not submit his resignation letter.

The protestors accuse Rajapaksa and his political family of taking money out of government coffers over years. Rajapaksa is accused of accelerating the country’s decline by mismanaging its economy. Although Rajapaksa admitted that some of his actions contributed to the collapse, the family denied any corruption.

It was unclear at first where Rajapaksa would end up. Initial indications by a Maldivian official that he was planning to go onward to Saudi Arabia were incorrect. He later confirmed his initial stop at Singapore. Rajapaksa’s departure is likely to have been planned while still enjoying constitutional immunity and access for a military aircraft.

While protesters were unaffected by tear gas rounds, they scaled the walls and entered the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wikesinghe. The crowd cheered their support and handed water bottles to them. Protesters took it in turns to pose at the desk of the prime minister or stand on rooftops waving the Sri Lankan flag.

In the midst of the chaos building, Wickremesinghe’s office declared a state emergency that gives greater powers to both the police and military. Some lawmakers have reacted with anger to the comments made by defense leaders, who called for peace and cooperation among security forces.

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The protesters blame Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe for the economic collapse of their country. They claim he protected Rajapaksa and his May appointment eased the pressure for him to resign.

Wickremesinghe has also stated that he would resign but only after a new government was in place. The speaker of Parliament has been urged to identify a prime minister who is acceptable to the opposition and the ruling parties.

It’s not clear when this might occur since the opposition has deep divisions. However, assuming Rajapaksa does resign as promised, Sri Lankan legislators have agreed to vote for a new president in July 20. This will finish Rajapaksa’s term which ended in 2024.. This person might appoint the new prime minister. However, Parliament would have to approve this appointment.

The political impasse could worsen the nation’s financial collapse. In the absence of a government alternative, the International Monetary Fund may delay the hoped for bailout. The country continues to rely on the help of India and China.

The lack of essential necessities has caused despair in Sri Lanka’s 22 millions. This was made more surprising by the fact that the country had been growing before the crisis and there was a comfortable middle class.

“Gotabaya resigning is one problem solved — but there are so many more,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who is not related to the prime minister.

He complained about how Sri Lankan politics are dominated by old politicians who need to be replaced. He said that politics should be treated as a job and not just because your name is Rajapaksa.

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After the President fled to Maldives, it was not clear where the other Rajapaksa relatives who served in government service were.

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Associated Press writer Bharatha Malawarachi contributed this report.

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