Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa officially resigns after fleeing country

Sri Lankans celebrate as they react to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's resignation in Colombo. Credit: AP

Sri Lanka's president has officially resigned after massive protests over the country’s economic collapse forced him from office, the speaker of Sri Lanka's Parliament confirmed on Friday.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped down after fleeing the country and Parliament will convene on Saturday to start the process of electing a new president, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana has said.

He expects to compete the process within seven days.

Their new choice as president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.

Sri Lanka's prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was officially sworn in as the country's acting president on Friday.

Rajapaksa fled the country Wednesday amid the mounting protests. He arrived in Singapore on Thursday and the speaker said Rajapaksa’s resignation was effective on that date.

“To be validated like this is massive,” said Viraga Perera, an engineer who has been protesting since April and estimated that he has spent 60 or 70 nights there in all.

“On a global scale, we have led a movement that toppled a president with minimal force and violence. It’s a mix of victory and relief.”

Earlier this week, protesters stormed the presidential palace, walking through the living quarters, gym, and even jumping in the swimming pool. By Wednesday, locals formed orderly queues, waiting to get a glimpse of their former leader's official residence.

At the prime minister's office however, tear gas was fired to disperse the crowds.

Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948. Citizens across the South Asian country are protesting against a cost of living crisis, with prices for basic goods spiraling out of control.

Last week, protesters torched the prime minister's home, just hours after he announced plans to resign.

Protesters sit around a dining table after storming the Sri Lankan prime minister's office. Credit: AP

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertiliser and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

Mass protests started in the South Asian country in March, with protesters accusing the government of economic mismanagement. With inflation out of control, the cost of living and basic goods has risen considerably. Food costs have risen 57%, according to official data.

Protesters flocked to the president's official residence, even using his swimming pool. Credit: AP

Sri Lanka is on the edge of bankruptcy and owes £43 billion in debt. Its tourism industry - which is a major part of Sri Lanka's economy - has faced setbacks due to the pandemic, and concerns about safety after terror attacks in 2019. The Sri Lankan rupee has collapsed by 80%, making imports more expensive and worsening inflation that is already out of control. The Finance Ministry says Sri Lanka has only £21 billion in usable foreign reserves. It needs £5 billion to stay afloat over the next six months. This leaves the country with hardly any money to import gasoline, milk, cooking gas, medicine and even toilet paper.