Sri Lankan political turmoil continues as crisis talks continue

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP)-A weekend of political unrest in Sri Lanka lasted until Monday, with opposition leaders yet to agree on replacements for quarrelsome President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister, whose residences remain occupied by protesters angry at the country’s economic collapse.

Crowds of demonstrators stormed Rajapaksa’s home, his beach office and the official residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday and demanded that they come down on the most dramatic day of the three-month crisis. Leaders of the two opposition parties held talks on Monday but did not agree on their options for president and prime minister.

Due to corruption and mismanagement, the island nation is in debt, unable to pay for imports of food, fuel, medicine and other necessities, causing widespread shortages and despair to its 22 million people. The country is seeking help from neighboring India, China and the International Monetary Fund.

Rajapaksa said he would step down on Wednesday, according to the speaker of parliament. The protesters promised to stay until the resignations were official.

In a video statement on Monday, the first since the weekend protests, Wickremesinghe reiterated that he would stay until there was a new government because he wanted to work within the constitution.

“A government must operate according to the law. I am here to protect the constitution and through it fulfill the demands of the people, ”Wickremesinghe said. “What we need now is an all-party government and we will take steps to establish that.”

The president has not been seen or heard from the public since Saturday and his location is unknown. But his office said Sunday that he ordered the immediate distribution of a shipment of cooking gas to the public, indicating he was still at work.

Months of demonstrations were all but the dismantling of the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for almost all of the past two decades.

Wickremesinghe also explained the sequence of events that led to the burning of his private residence on Saturday. He said protesters gathered around his house after a lawmaker, in what Wickremesinghe said was an inaccurate tweet, announced that he had refused to resign at a meeting of parliamentary party leaders.

Police filed batons and fired tear gas, he said, adding: “The last option was to shoot. We didn’t shoot but they came and set the house on fire.”

A group of nine Cabinet ministers said on Monday that they would immediately stop to give way to an all-party government, outgoing Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe said. Wickremesinghe’s office said another group that met with him decided to stay until a new government was formed.

Talks by opposition party leaders to form an alternative unity government are an urgent need of a bankrupt country to resume discussions with the IMF.

Lawmaker Udaya Gammanpila said the main opposition United People’s Front and lawmakers who defected from Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition agreed to work together. Leading opposition leaders Sajith Premadasa and Dullas Alahapperuma, who is a minister under Rajapaksa, have proposed to take over as president and prime minister and asked to decide how to share positions before a meeting with the parliamentary speaker on Monday, but they did not reconcile.

“We cannot be in an anarchical condition. We have to somehow reach a consensus today, ”said Gammanpila.

Opposition parties are also concerned about military leaders making statements about public security in the absence of a civil administration.

Lawmakers discussed the statement of Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Shavendra Silva over the weekend urging public cooperation to maintain law and order, said Kavinda Makalanda, Premadasa spokesperson.

“A civilian administration is needed, not the military, in a democratic country,” Makalanda said.

If the opposition parties fail to form a government by the time Rajapaksa resigns, Wickremesinghe as prime minister will be the acting president under the constitution. In accordance with the demands of the protesters, however, the opposition parties did not want him even as acting president.

They said Wickremesinghe should resign immediately and allow Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to become acting president – the next in line under the constitution. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the country’s main body of lawyers, has also endorsed that position.

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May to try to solve deficits and start economic recovery. But delays in restoring even basic supplies have sparked public outrage against him, with protesters accusing him of protecting the president.

When Wickremesinghe took over as prime minister to bail out the economy, he said it would take at least a year to complete the initial steps needed for full recovery.

Wickremesinghe has been part of important talks with the IMF for a bailout program and the World Food Program to prepare for a predicted food crisis. The government must submit a debt maintenance plan to the IMF in August before an agreement can be reached.

Sri Lanka is relying on help from India and other countries until it can secure a deal in its negotiations with the IMF. Wickremesinghe said recently that the talks are complicated because Sri Lanka is now bankrupt.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it had suspended repayment of foreign loans due to lack of foreign currency. Its total overseas debt stands at $ 51 billion, of which it must repay $ 28 billion by the end of 2027.

Describing the burning of his residence on Saturday, Wickremesinghe said he lost what he called “my greatest treasure” – his library of 2,500 books, including those written during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period from the 16th and 19th century. He said there were old books written about Buddhism, those signed by leaders such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, historical paintings and Buddhist artifacts, which he planned to give to his old school. and a university after his death.

He also lost all his collection of paintings except one.