Sri Lankan lawmakers were gearing up for a meeting on Saturday to begin electing a new leader to serve out the remainder of the president’s term, who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.
A day earlier, Sri Lanka’s prime minister had been sworn in as interim president houses of Parliament choose a successor Gotabaya Rajapaksawhose term of office ends in 2024. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana promised a speedy and transparent political 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.
Security around the parliament building in the capital Colombo was closed to the public on Saturday with armed masked soldiers and roads near the building.
In a televised statement, Prime Minister Ranil 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”.
It was unclear who he was referring to, although he said real protesters were not involved in clashes near Parliament on Wednesday night that reportedly injured many soldiers.
“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. Many demonstrators insisted that Wickremesinghe should also resign.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is running for the presidency, vowed to “listen to the people” and hold Rajapaksa accountable.
In an interview with The Associated Press from his office, Sajith Premadasa said that if he won the general election, he would ensure that “there will never be an electoral dictatorship” in Sri Lanka.
“We should do that. That’s our job – to catch those who plundered Sri Lanka. This should be done through appropriate constitutional, legal and democratic procedures,” Premadasa said.
Sri Lanka has run out of money to pay for importing basic necessities like food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline was all the more shocking given that, prior to this crisis, the economy was expanding with a growing, comfortable middle class.
The protests underscored the dramatic overthrow of the Rajapaksa political clan, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Rev. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and protest leader, said the country had “a hard journey behind it”.
“We are happy as a collective effort because all Sri Lankan citizens, even Sri Lankan diaspora, have participated in this Sri Lankan struggle,” he said.
Sri Lanka remains a powder keg and the military warned Thursday it had the power to respond in the event of chaos – news some found ominous.
The speaker called on the public to create “a peaceful atmosphere” for the democratic process and to ensure that Parliament “functions 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 money from the treasury and hastening the country’s collapse through bad management. 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 and Wickremesinghe official residence. On Wednesday, they confiscated his office.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government was in office but changed tactics on Thursday, apparently worried an escalation in violence could undermine their message after clashes outside Parliament that left dozens injured.
Protester Mirak Raheem noted the lack of violence and said the work is far from over.
“There’s something really amazing about this, the fact that this happened on the back of a largely peaceful protest. But obviously this is just a start,” Raheem said, citing work to rebuild the economy and restore public confidence in the political system.
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.
A military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, Rajapaksa and his brother, then president, were once celebrated 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.
For more information on AP’s Sri Lanka coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka