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Sri Lankan president vows to shed powers and appoint prime minister

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Alamy/PA)
Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Alamy/PA)

Sri Lanka’s president has promised to appoint a new prime minister, empower the parliament and abolish the all-powerful executive presidential system as reforms to stabilise the country engulfed in a political crisis and violence triggered by the worst economic crisis in memory.

In a televised address, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he condemns attacks on peaceful protesters by mobs who came to support his brother and former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned on Monday.

“I am taking steps to appoint within this week a new prime minister who has the trust of a majority in parliament, who can win over the confidence of the people and a new cabinet to control the current situation, to stop the country from falling into anarchy and to continue the government’s functions that are at a standstill,” he said.

“I will make way for the new prime minister to present a new programme of work and implement it.”

Sri Lanka Economic Crisis
Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

The president said he will also give away much of his powers to parliament and when some normality returns, take steps to abolish the country’s powerful executive presidential system.

His speech came as authorities deployed armoured vehicles and troops in the streets of the capital, two days after pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters, triggering a wave of violence across the country.

Security forces have been ordered to shoot people deemed to be participating in the violence, as sporadic acts of arson and vandalism continued despite a strict nationwide curfew that began on Monday evening.

Anti-government protesters have been demanding the resignations of Mr Rajapaksa and his brother over a debt crisis that has nearly bankrupted Sri Lanka and left its people facing severe shortages of fuel, food and other essentials.

In the past few days, nine people have died and more than 200 have been injured in attacks in which mobs set fire to buildings and vehicles.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan soldiers patrol during curfew in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

Armoured trucks with soldiers riding on top rolled into some areas of Colombo. Defying the curfew, some protesters regrouped opposite the president’s office to continue demonstrations that began over a month ago. Police announced over loudspeakers that it is illegal to stay in public places during the curfew.

Videos posted on social media showed lines of military trucks moving out of the capital, along with soldiers riding on motorbikes and setting up checkpoints across the country amid fears that a political vacuum could pave the way for a military takeover.

The Defence Ministry’s top official, Kamal Gunaratne, denied speculation of a military takeover at a news conference held with the army and navy chiefs.

“None of our officers has a desire to take over the government. It has never happened in our country, and it is not easy to do it here,” he said.

President Rajapaksa is a former top army officer and remains the country’s official defence minister.

Mr Gunaratne said the army will return to its barracks once the security situation normalises.

Sri Lanka Economic Crisis
Protests in Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

The prime minister’s departure has created an administrative vacuum with no cabinet, which dissolved automatically with his resignation.

Navy commander Nishantha Ulugetenne said Mahinda Rajapaksa is being protected at a naval base in Trincomalee on the north-eastern coast.

After Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, he and his family were evacuated from his official residence through thousands of protesters trying to break into the heavily guarded colonial-era building.

The Indian embassy denied social media speculation that “certain political persons and their families have fled to India”, and also rejected suggestions that India was sending troops to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is nearing bankruptcy and has suspended payments on 7 billion dollars in foreign loans due this year out of 25 billion dollars due by 2026. Its total foreign debt is 51 billion dollars.

The Central Bank on Wednesday urged the president and parliament to quickly restore political stability, warning the economy faces a threat of further collapse within days.