The Sri Lankan government has a new leader two days after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on a military plane.
His July 13 departure came after days of mass protests over the country’s destitute economy with citizens calling for his resignation. Rajapaksa had vowed to resign but left behind no formal letter, stalling the installation of new leadership. He appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence.
Wickremesinghe has described the protests as a “fascist threat to democracy” and urged participants to vacate the “president’s office, the president’s secretariat and the prime minister’s official residence” which had come under the control of hundreds of thousands of protesters over the weekend.
Protesters also set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private residence over the weekend.
After Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena formally announced Rajapaksa’s resignation on July 15, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the interim president.
He vowed to assist with changes to the constitution that would limit presidential powers, increase Parliament’s abilities, and restore law and order in the country.
Wickremesinghe also said he would take action against “insurgents” who he suggested led violent clashes near Parliament on the evening of July 13.
“I will take immediate steps to establish the rule of law and peace in the country. I accept 100% the right to peaceful protests. But some are trying to do acts of sabotage,” he said. “There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents… We will take legal action against insurgents.”
Lawmakers are expected to elect a new president on July 20.
Skyrocketing inflation has triggered an economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Shortages of food, medication and fuel as well as rolling blackouts have plagued increasingly frustrated citizens.
“The Sri Lankan economy’s foreign reserves were decimated as a result of the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions, but also substantial uncertainty over consumer confidence and the state of the economy,” reports The Diplomat. Additionally, “the Sri Lankan state is fundamentally incapable of repaying the vast loans it has taken out, from countries including, but not limited to, China, but also from international markets.”
Rajapaksa, whose family has dominated national politics for years, has been accused of mismanaging the nation’s economy and siphoning government money for personal use.
The 73-year-old president left Sri Lanka for the Maldives, where protests erupted upon his arrival. He then traveled to Singapore, which denied his request for political asylum.
He is expected to remain in the country before traveling to the United Arab Emirates.
Sri Lanka, an island nation with 22 million people, gained independence from the British Empire in 1948.