Protesters storm Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s office, state of emergency declared

Protesters in Sri Lanka have defied tear gas, water cannons and a state of emergency to storm the prime minister’s office after the president fled abroad, with crowds demanding both men resign in the face of an economic crisis.
In a televised statement on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he had instructed the military and police to do “whatever is necessary to restore order”.
But the footage shows armed security personnel standing on his office grounds as protesters, some of whom hold national flags, crowd and take pictures.

Other demonstrators broke into the state television studios at one point as the country’s months-long political and economic crisis seemed to be coming to a head.

A crowd of protesters.

Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency, but the protesters could not be stopped. Source: Getty / AFP

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed over the weekend to step down on Wednesday after fleeing his official residence in Colombo shortly before tens of thousands of protesters stormed it.

As president, Mr. Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest and is believed to have wanted to travel abroad before resigning to avoid the possibility of being detained. The 73-year-old man, his wife and two bodyguards flew a military plane to the neighboring Maldives, immigration sources told AFP.
Hours later, with no official announcement that he was resigning, thousands of demonstrators surrounded the office of Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was appointed acting president by Mr. Rajapaksa during his absence, demanding that both officials leave.
“Go home, Ranil, go home, Gotha,” they shouted.
Tear gas and water cannons fired by the police, as well as a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew, failed to disperse them, and the crowd poured into the building.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, also 73, will automatically become acting president if Mr. Rajapaksa steps down, but has himself indicated his willingness to step down if there is a consensus to form a government of national unity.

A group of protesters.

Anti-government protesters outside the Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s office in Colombo, the capital, on July 13, 2022. Source: Getty, AFP / Arun Sankar

“We cannot tear up our constitution,” he said in a statement. “We cannot let the fascists take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” he said, adding that the official buildings occupied by the protesters must be returned to state control.

The actions of the protesters were a repeat of the siege of the home and office of President Gotabai Rajapaksa on Saturday, when the private home of Mr. Wickremesinghe was also set on fire.
The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that Mr. Rajapaksa had left the country, but said they did not have a timetable for announcing the President’s resignation.

The succession process can take anywhere from three days – the minimum time required for Parliament to elect an MP for Mr Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024 – up to the 30 days allowed by law.

Difficult exit

Mr. Rajapaksa has been accused of mismanaging the economy to such an extent that the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, causing serious hardship for its 22 million people.
Earlier Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans filled the hallways again after his departure, young couples walk hand in hand in the mood of a quiet holiday.
“People are very happy because these people have robbed our country,” said 74-year-old retired civil servant Kingsley Samarakun.

“They stole too much money, billions and billions.”

But he had little hope for an immediate improvement in Sri Lanka’s situation.
“How will people run a country without money?” he asked. “This is problem.”
Sri Lanka defaulted on its US$51 billion (AU$75 billion) external debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible financial bailout.
The island has nearly exhausted its already meager supply of gasoline. The government has ordered non-essential offices and schools to close to reduce travel and conserve fuel.
The departure of 73-year-old Rajapaksa, once known as “The Terminator”, was delayed for more than 24 hours in a humiliating confrontation with immigration staff in Colombo.

He wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but Bandaranaike International refused VIP service and insisted that all passengers go through public counters.

The man speaks into the microphone.

Sri Lankan President Gotabay Rajapaksa was accused of economic mismanagement. Source: Getty / Andy Buchanan – pool

Upon his arrival in the Maldives on Wednesday, Mr Rajapaksa was flown to an undisclosed location under police escort, a spokesman for the airport in the capital, Male, said.

His younger brother Basil, who stepped down as finance minister in April, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai on Tuesday after his own tense standoff with airport staff.
The leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, Sajit Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, said he would run for president.

Mr. Premadasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed in a suicide attack by Tamil rebels in May 1993.