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Sri Lankan president resigns after fleeing country amid economic crisis

Sri Lankans celebrate as they react to early reports of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation in Colombo (AP)
Sri Lankans celebrate as they react to early reports of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation in Colombo (AP)

The speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament has said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s interim president until Mr Rajapaksa’s successor has been elected, officials added later.

Legislators will convene to choose a new leader after massive protests over the country’s economic collapse forced him from office, according to speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana.

Parliament will meet on Saturday to start the process of electing a new president who would serve out the remainder of Mr Rajapaksa’s term, which was due to end in 2024. Mr Abeywardana expects the process to be complete in seven days.

The new president could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by parliament.

Sri Lanka parliament speaker
Sri Lanka’s parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana (AP)

However, with Mr Rajapaksa gone, pressure on Mr Wickremesinghe to also step down is increasing.

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertiliser, medicine and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people.

Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

Mr Rajapaksa fled the country on Wednesday amid the mounting protests. He arrived in Singapore on Thursday and the speaker said Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation was effective from that date.

People gathering at the main protest site in front of the president’s office in Colombo welcomed the news of Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation, but insisted that Mr Wickremesinghe should also step aside.

Protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated on Thursday, restoring a tenuous calm in the capital, Colombo. But with the political opposition in parliament fractured, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seems no closer.

Pictures of the Week in Asia Photo Gallery
The protesters accuse Mr Rajapaksa of siphoning money from the government for years (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

The nation is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so poor that even obtaining a bailout has proven difficult, Mr Wickremesinghe recently said.

The country remains a powder keg, and the military warned on Thursday that it has powers to respond in case of chaos – a message some found concerning.

Mr Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent process for electing a new president.

Protesters accuse Mr Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.

The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and Mr Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.

Sri Lanka protester
A protester drinks a cup of tea as she sits by a defaced poster carrying portraits of ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (AP)

Images of protesters inside the buildings – lounging on elegant sofas and beds, posing at officials’ desks and touring the opulent settings – captured the world’s attention.

The demonstrators initially vowed to stay until a new government was in place, but they shifted tactics on Thursday, apparently concerned that an escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes outside parliament that left dozens injured.

“The fear was that there could be a crack in the trust they held for the struggle,” said Nuzly, a protest leader who goes by only one name. “We’ve shown what power of the people can do, but it doesn’t mean we have to occupy these places.”

Mr Rajapaksa and his wife slipped away in the night aboard a military plane early Wednesday. On Thursday, he went to Singapore, according to the city-state’s foreign ministry. It said he had not requested asylum.

Since Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, Mr Rajapaksa likely wanted to leave while he still had constitutional immunity and access to the plane.