Sri Lanka's president, PM to step down after tumultuous protests over economic crisis

Sri Lanka's president and prime minister agreed on Saturday to resign after the country's most chaotic day in months of political turmoil, with protesters storming both officials' homes and setting fire to one of the buildings in a rage over the nation's severe economic crisis.

Move comes after protesters enter presidential palace, PM's private residence

Sri Lankan president, PM agree to resign as protesters storm leaders' residences

5 months ago
Duration 2:45
Sri Lanka's president and prime minister have agreed to resign amid chaotic protests with citizens storming both officials' homes over the country's severe economic crisis.

Sri Lanka's president and prime minister agreed on Saturday to resign after the country's most chaotic day in months of political turmoil, with protesters storming both officials' homes and setting fire to one of the buildings in a rage over the nation's severe economic crisis.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will leave office once a new government is in place, and hours later the Speaker of parliament said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday.

Pressure on both men grew as the economic meltdown set off severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other necessities.

Police had attempted to thwart promised protests with a curfew, then lifted it as lawyers and opposition politicians denounced it as illegal.

Thousands of protesters entered the capital, Colombo, and swarmed into Rajapaksa's fortified residence. Video images showed jubilant crowds splashing in the garden pool, lying on beds and using their cellphone cameras to capture the moment. Some made tea, while others issued statements from a conference room demanding that the president and prime minister go.

It was not clear if Rajapaksa was there at the time, and government spokesperson Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information about the president's movements.

Protesters, many carrying Sri Lankan flags, gather outside the president's office in Colombo on Saturday. (Thilina Kaluthotage/The Associated Press)

Protesters later broke into the prime minister's private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe's office said. It wasn't immediately clear if he was there when the incursion took place.

Earlier, police fired tear gas at protesters who gathered in the streets to march on the presidential residence, waving flags, banging drums and chanting slogans. In all, more than 30 people were hurt in Saturday's chaos.

Speaker will be temporary president

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a televised statement that he informed Rajapaksa that parliamentary leaders had met and decided to request he leave office, and the president agreed. However, Rajapaksa will remain temporarily to ensure a smooth transfer of power, Abeywardena added.

"He asked me to inform the country that he will make his resignation on Wednesday the 13th, because there is a need to hand over power peacefully," he said.

Rajapaksa, shown at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, had come under pressure to resign amid the country's economic crisis. (Andy Buchanan/Getty Images)

"Therefore, there is no need for further disturbances in the country, and I urge everyone for the sake of the country to maintain peace to enable a smooth transition," the Speaker continued.

Opposition lawmaker Rauff Hakeem said a consensus was reached for Abeywardena to take over as temporary president and work on an interim government.

Proposal for all-party government

Wickremesinghe had announced his own impending resignation earlier in the day, but said he would not step down until a new government is formed, angering protesters who demanded his immediate departure.

"Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several matters to discuss with the IMF," Wickremesinghe said in a statement, referring to the International Monetary Fund. "Therefore, if this government leaves, there should be another government."

Firefighters try to douse a fire set by protesters at Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's private residence in Colombo on Saturday. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Wickremesinghe said he suggested to the president to have an all-party government, but he didn't say anything about Rajapaksa's whereabouts. Opposition parties were discussing the formation of a new government.

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in the hope that the career politician would use his diplomacy and contacts to resuscitate a collapsed economy. But people's patience wore thin as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas only increased and oil reserves ran dry. Authorities have also temporarily shuttered schools.

The country is relying on aid from India and other countries as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion US, of which it must repay $28 billion US by the end of 2027.

More than 30 injured

Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of mismanagement and corruption. The president's older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base.

With fuel costs making other forms of travel impossible for many, protesters crowded onto buses and trains on Saturday to get to the capital, while others made their way on bicycles and on foot. At the president's seaside office, security personnel tried to stop demonstrators who pushed through fences to run across the lawns and inside the colonial-era building.

At least 34 people, including two police officers, were hurt in scuffles. Two of the injured are in critical condition, while others sustained minor injuries, said an official at the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Demonstrators are seen inside the president's residence on Saturday in Colombo. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Journalists reportedly beaten by police

Privately owned Sirasa Television reported that at least six staff members, including four reporters, were hospitalized after they were beaten by police while covering the protest at the prime minister's home.

Sri Lanka Medical Council, the country's top professional body, warned that hospitals were running with minimum resources and will not be able to handle any mass casualties from the unrest.

Protesters demanding Rajapaksa's resignation swim in a pool inside the compound of the presidential palace in Colombo on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Protest and religious leaders said Rajapaksa has lost his mandate and it is time for him to go.

"His claim that he was voted in by the Sinhala Buddhists is not valid now," said Ven. Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to convene immediately to select an interim president.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday asked people to protest peacefully and called for the military and police "to grant peaceful protesters the space and security to do so."

"Chaos & force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now," Chung posted on Twitter.