COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president of Sri Lanka on Friday until parliament elects a successor Gotabaya Rajapaksawho resigned after mass protests against the country’s economic collapse pushed him out of office.
The Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament said lawmakers will meet on Saturday to elect a new leader after Rajapaksa resigned effective Thursday. Her election would serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024, spokesman Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said.
He promised a quick and transparent process that should be completed within a week.
The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be confirmed by parliament. With Rajapaksa the pressure mounted on Wickremesinghe.
In a televised statement, Wickremesinghe said he would take steps to amend the constitution to limit the president’s powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against “insurgency”.
Referring to clashes near Parliament on Wednesday night that reportedly injured many soldiers, Wickremesinghe said real protesters would not engage in such actions.
“There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents. We will take legal action against insurgents,” he said.
Wickremesinghe became acting president after Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday and flew first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. The prime minister’s office said Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya on Friday.
Sri Lanka is running out of money to pay for the import basic needs such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. The rapid economic decline was all the more shocking as the economy was expanding prior to this crisis, with a growing, comfortable middle class.
After Rajapaksa’s resignation, protesters cooked and distributed rice pudding – a meal Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories. At the main protest square in front of the President’s office in Colombo, people welcomed his resignation but insisted that Wickremesinghe should also resign.
“I’m glad Gotabaya is finally gone. He should have resigned earlier without causing much trouble,” said Velayuthan Pillai, 73, a retired bank teller, as patriotic songs blared from speakers.
But he added: “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He helped them. He has to go too.”
The capital returned to a tenuous calm after protesters occupying government buildings retreated on Thursday. But with political opposition in parliament broken, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seemed no nearer.
The country remains a powder keg, and the military warned Thursday it had the power to respond in the event of chaos – news some found ominous.
Abeywardana, the speaker of the parliament, urged the public to “create a peaceful atmosphere to implement the proper parliamentary democratic process and allow all members of parliament to attend the sessions and work freely and conscientiously”.
Sri Lanka is asking for help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so dire that even obtaining a bailout has proved difficult, Wickremesinghe said recently.
The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning and sacrificing money from the state coffers accelerates the collapse of the country through bad management of the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s collapse.
Maduka Iroshan, 26, a university student and protester, said he was “thrilled” that Rajapaksa quit because he “ruined the dreams of the young generation.”
Months of protests reached a frenzied climax last weekend when protesters stormed the President’s home and office, as well as the official residence of Wickremesinghe. On Wednesday, they confiscated his office.
Pictures of protesters Inside the buildings — lounging on plush sofas and beds, posing at officers’ desks and perusing the opulent backdrops — captured the world’s attention.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government was in place but changed tactics on Thursday, apparently concerned that an escalation in violence could undermine their message after clashes outside Parliament that left dozens injured.
Protester Mirak Raheem noted that the lack of violence is important, although their work is far from over.
“That’s really amazing, the fact that this happened on the basis of a largely peaceful protest,” Raheem said. “But obviously this is just a start, that there is a longer way to go in terms of the kind of work that needs to be done, not just to rebuild the economy, but to build public confidence in this political system.”
The protests underscored the dramatic overthrow of the Rajapaksa political clan, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Rajapaksa and his wife disappeared aboard a military plane early Wednesday night. He traveled to Singapore on Thursday, according to the city-state’s foreign ministry. It said he had not applied for asylum and it was unclear whether he would stay or move on. He has previously received medical services there, including heart surgery.
Since Sri Lankan Presidents are protected from arrest during their term of office, Rajapaksa likely wanted to leave while he still had constitutional immunity and access to the plane.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, then-President, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, were hailed by the island’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Despite allegations of atrocities during the war, including ordering military attacks on ethnic Tamil civilians and kidnapping journalists, Rajapaksa remained popular with many Sri Lankans. He has always denied the allegations.
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