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Sri Lanka’s acting president declares state of emergency amid protests

Girls display their arms painted with message ‘Ranil go home’, referring to Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a protest in Colombo (AP)
Girls display their arms painted with message ‘Ranil go home’, referring to Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a protest in Colombo (AP)

Sri Lanka’s acting president has declared a state of emergency giving him broad authority amid growing calls for his resignation two days before the country’s legislators elect his successor.

Former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe became acting president on Friday after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country on Wednesday and resigned after months-long mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s move to impose a state of emergency comes as protests demanding his resignation have continued in most parts of the country, with some protesters burning his effigy.

Mr Wickremesinghe said in a statement that negotiations for a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were nearing conclusion, while discussions for assistance with foreign countries were also progressing.

He said that relief was being provided to people and steps taken to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.

But he said “elements within society” were trying to disrupt peace. He did not specify, but said that disruptions would not be allowed to hinder the country’s progress.

Mr Wickremesinghe said that peaceful protesters who had legitimate concerns would be engaged with by the government and solutions found for them.

He also urged political parties to put aside their differences and form “an all-party government which would allow the country to recover from the economic crisis”.

There was no immediate response from political parties to his latest comments, but they have been working on a unity government.

Sri Lanka vigil
People light candles during a vigil in remembrance of those who died during the recent months of protests (AP)

Lawmakers who met on Saturday began the process of electing a new leader to serve the rest of the term abandoned by Mr Rajapaksa.

Nominations for the election of the new president will be heard on Tuesday, and if there is more than one candidate, another vote will follow on Wednesday.

The emergency decree issued by Mr Wickremesinghe invokes sections of the Public Security Ordinance that allow him to make regulations in the interests of public security, the preservation of public order, the suppression of mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Under the emergency regulations, Mr Wickremesinghe can authorise detentions, take possession of any property and search any premises. He can also change or suspend any law.

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

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

Sri Lanka demo
A man sells hand bands which read ‘Ranil Go home’ at the protest site in Colombo (AP)

Sri Lanka is seeking help from the IMF and other creditors, but top officials say its finances are so poor that even obtaining a bailout has proven difficult.

The economic hardships led to political upheaval and widespread protests demanding the government led by Mr Rajapaksa should step down. Although many ministers resigned in April, Mr Rajapaksa had remained in power until last week.

The main protests have occurred in the capital, Colombo, where protesters occupied the front of the president’s office for more than 100 days.

The protesters accuse Mr Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers 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.

Mr Rajapaksa flew first to the Maldives on Wednesday and then to Singapore.