Sri Lankan prime minister resigns after weeks of escalating violence

Sri Lanka has been in crisis for weeks. Credit: AP

Sri Lanka's prime minister resigned on Monday following weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the country's president, quit after violence across the country left one MP and several others dead.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that he submitted his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Four people, including a member of parliament from the governing party, died in Monday's violence, which saw the army being deployed on the streets of the capital Colombo.

President Rajapaksa imposed a countrywide curfew in response to the violence, lasting until Wednesday morning.

Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) and his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Credit: AP

For more than a month, protests have spread across the country, drawing people across ethnicities, religions and class.

For the first time, middle-class Sri Lankans also took to the streets in large numbers, marking a dramatic revolt by many former Rajapaksa supporters, some of whom have spent weeks protesting outside the president’s office.

The protests are the pinnacle of Rajapaksa's fall from grace who were once Sri Lanka's most powerful political dynasty.

The brothers were once hailed as heroes by many of the island’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority for ending the country’s 30-year civil war and, despite accusations of war atrocities, were firmly entrenched at the top of Sri Lankan politics until now.

Tear gas and water cannons have been used to disperse protesters. Credit: AP

The prime minister’s resignation comes as the country’s economy has swiftly unravelled in recent weeks.

Imports of everything from milk to fuel have plunged, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts.

People have been forced to stand in lines for hours to buy essentials. Doctors have warned of crippling shortages of life-saving drugs in hospitals, and the government has suspended payments on £5.7 billion in foreign debt due this year alone.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially blamed Sri Lanka's economic woes on global factors like the pandemic battering its tourism industry and the Russia-Ukraine conflict pushing up global oil prices.

Protests have been going on for weeks. Credit: AP

But both he and his brother have since admitted to mistakes that exacerbated the crisis, including conceding they should have sought an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout sooner.

Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the IMF to set up a rescue plan, but its progress depends on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors. Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway.

Sri Lanka was in financial trouble even before the Ukraine war drove up food and oil prices and made things worse.

The Sri Lankan government has been running big budget deficits after cutting taxes in 2019 and struggling to collect taxes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also has piled up massive foreign debt - much of it owed to China - and has scant foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports and to defend its embattled currency, the rupee.

Monday's violence triggered widespread anger, with people singling out Rajapaksa supporters and attacking them in many parts of the country.

Four people were killed in Monday's violence Credit: AP

Ruling party lawmaker Amarakeerthi Athukorale and his bodyguard were killed near Colombo after the car they were travelling in was intercepted by an angry crowd, the police said.

Athikorale or his bodyguard had fired gunshots at the protesters, who chased them and trapped them inside a building where their badly beaten bodies were recovered by police several hours later, the spokesman said.

Three people were hospitalised with gunshot wounds from the shots fired from the lawmaker's vehicle, he said.

Protesters tried several times to break into the prime minister's official residence on Monday night, forcing police to fire tear gas.

Homes of government ministers and politicians supporting the Rajapaksas were also attacked and some set on fire. The memorial for the brothers' parents was vandalised.

Despite the departure of his brother from the post of prime minister, the president has so far refused to resign and Parliament must go through a difficult process if it attempts to oust him.