Sri Lankan president resigns, parliament meets

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament says President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned and parliament will meet to choose a new leader after massive protests swept through government buildings to force him to step down. .

President Mahinda Yapa Abeyweardana said on Friday parliament would convene on Saturday to start the process of electing a new president. He expects to complete the process within seven days.

Their new choice as president will serve the rest 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.

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

“To be validated like this is huge,” said Viraga Perera, an engineer who has been protesting since April and estimates he spent 60 or 70 nights there in all. “Globally, we led a movement that overthrew a president with minimal force and violence. It’s a mixture of victory and relief.

Protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated on Thursday, restoring an uneasy calm to the capital, Colombo. But with a fractured opposition, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seemed no closer.

Abeywardana said he will ensure that the process of electing a new president is swift and transparent. “I ask the honorable and loving citizens of this country to create a peaceful atmosphere in order to carry out the proper parliamentary democratic process and to allow all members of parliament to participate in meetings and to function freely and conscientiously, he said. said Friday.

Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and his administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when protesters stormed the president’s home and office and the official residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. On Wednesday, they seized Wickremesinghe’s office.

Images of protesters inside the buildings – lying on sleek couches and beds, posing outside officials’ desks and touring the lavish venues – captured the world’s attention.

Protesters had initially vowed to keep these places until a new government is in place, but the movement changed tack on Thursday, apparently concerned that any escalation in violence could undermine their message in the wake of the clashes the previous night in front of Parliament which left dozens injured.

“The fear was that there was a crack in the confidence they had for the fight,” said Nuzly, a one-name protest leader. “We’ve shown what people power can do, but that doesn’t mean we have to occupy these places.”

Devinda Kodagode, another protest leader, told The Associated Press they plan to leave official buildings after the speaker said he was exploring legal options for the country following Rajapaksa’s departure. .

Visaka Jayaweer, an entertainer, described the bittersweet moment of the closing of the presidential palace gate after the crowd left.

“Returning to his residency was a great moment. It showed how much we wanted him to quit. But it’s also a great relief” to leave, she said. “We were worried if people were acting out – many were angry at the luxury he lived in when they were out, struggling to buy food. milk for their children.”

The country remains a powder keg and the military warned on Thursday that it had the power to react in the event of chaos – a message that some found concerning.

Troops in green uniforms and camouflage vests arrived in armored vehicles to reinforce barricades around parliament, while protesters vowed to continue to hold rallies outside the president’s office until a new government is in place. in place.

Rajapaksa and his wife fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday for the Maldives, slipping away overnight on a military plane. On Thursday, he traveled to Singapore, according to the city-state’s foreign ministry. He said he did not apply for asylum.

Given that Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, it is likely that Rajapaksa wanted to plan his departure while he still enjoyed constitutional immunity and had access to the plane.

The protests underscored the dramatic downfall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, and his brother, who was president at the time, were hailed by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority . Despite accusations of wartime atrocities, including ordering military attacks on ethnic Tamil civilians and abducting journalists, Rajapaksa remained popular among many Sri Lankans. He has always denied the allegations.

The shortage of basic necessities has sown despair among the 22 million inhabitants of Sri Lanka. The country’s rapid decline is all the more shocking because before the recent crisis, the economy was booming, with a wealthy and growing middle class.

It was not immediately clear whether Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has already sought medical treatment there, including heart surgery.

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Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.

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Corina C. Butler