Sri Lanka president won’t resign despite growing protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president will not step down and instead will face the country’s political and economic crisis, a key government minister said Wednesday despite continuing large protests that are demanding his resignation.

Sri Lanka has endured months of shortages of fuel and other essentials, and the protests over the economic troubles have spread nationwide and expanded to criticism of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his politically powerful family.

Rajapaksa has resisted the calls for him to resign even after members of his own coalition made them this week, with governing party lawmakers saying an interim government should replace his and failing to do so would make them responsible for violence.

Rajapaksa “will not resign. We will face this. We have the strength to face this. We are not afraid,” Minister of Highways Johnston Fernando told Parliament on Wednesday.

Hours earlier, Rajapaksa revoked the state of emergency that he had declared last week after crowds of protesters demonstrated near his home in the capital, Colombo. The widely criticized emergency declaration gave him sweeping authority to act to protect public security, including suspending any laws, authorizing detentions and seizing property.

TV and social media images from Monday showed protesters storming into the offices and houses of governing party lawmakers and vandalizing some premises. Lawmakers urged the Parliament speaker to ensure their safety, and Fernando said they were prepared.

“We are ready to face them if anyone comes to attack us,” Fernando said in Parliament.

Protests continued Wednesday in many parts of the country demanding that Rajapaksa step down.

In Colombo, hundreds of doctors staged a protest march urging the government to solve shortages of medicine at state-run hospitals, while opposition lawmakers demonstrated in Parliament demanding that Rajapaksa resign. The protest caused a 10-minute suspension of Parliament.

Elsewhere in the country, students, lawyers and other groups protested against the government.

Rajapaksa earlier proposed a unity government be formed to handle the crisis, but the main opposition party rejected it. His Cabinet resigned Sunday night, and on Tuesday, nearly 40 governing coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions, significantly weakening the government.

The president and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, continue to hold power, despite their politically powerful family being the focus of public ire. Five other family members are lawmakers, including Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and a nephew, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa.

The family’s immense political clout grew in part from Mahinda Rajapaksa being credited when he was president earlier for ending Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war with the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.

There are now fears the family’s control over key state functions has weakened independent institutions and left the government unable to address the crisis.

The government estimates the COVID-19 pandemic has cost Sri Lanka’s economy $14 billion in the last two years. Protesters also allege fiscal mismanagement — Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily for infrastructure and other projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone.

The debts and dwindling foreign reserves leave it unable to pay for imported goods.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, foods and medicines, most of which comes from abroad and is paid for in hard currency. The fuel shortage, along with lower hydropower capacity in dry weather, has caused rolling power cuts lasting hours each day.

Rajapaksa last month said his government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund and turned to China and India for loans while he appealed to people to limit the use of fuel and electricity.

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