© Reuters. Sri Lanka’s ruling party supporters are seen in Beira Lake after they jumped in there to protect themselves from anti-government demonstrators during a clash between two groups, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April May 9, 2022.
By Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) -Protesters and a key trade group in Sri Lanka called for a new government to take control of the crisis-hit country on Tuesday as the president called for calm a day after clashes killed eight people, pushing his brother to quit as prime minister.
Sri Lanka has been suffering its worst economic crisis in history, with a severe shortage of foreign exchange stalling the essential of imports, including drugs and fuel.
For months, its tottering economy has been largely supported by India, which has provided assistance of more than $3.5 billion as the country began much-delayed talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package and also sought help from China.
China and India have long jostled for influence over Sri Lanka, a strategically-located island located off the southern tip of India with a population of 22 million people.
But the public’s patience ran out on Monday after ruling party supporters attacked an anti-government protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo, triggering a bout of deadly clashes that has left over 200 people injured.
Hours after the violence erupted, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned in the hope of forming a unity government and the police imposed a nationwide curfew until 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The country’s entire cabinet also stepped down.
Protesters angered by persistent shortages of fuel, cooking gas and electricity defied the curfew to attack government figures, setting ablaze homes, shops and businesses belonging to ruling party lawmakers and provincial politicians.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former prime minister’s younger brother, urged for an end to the violence and his government outlined broad powers for the military and police to detain and question people without arrest warrants.
“All efforts will be made to restore political stability through consensus, within constitutional mandate & to resolve economic crisis,” the president said in a tweet.
The country’s defence ministry also ordered troops to shoot at any persons damaging public property or threatening lives.
But protesters continued rallying for the president to quit, including at the “Gota Go Gama” tent village that was attacked by ruling party supporters on Tuesday.
“Now the whole island is supporting us,” said Lahiru Fernando, 36, who has been camped at the anti-government protest site for weeks. “They kicked the wrong generation.”
Some experts said that if the president decides to step down in the face of growing pressure, the constitution outlines provisions for parliament to vote in a new leader.
“So, there will not be a power vacuum. There are also provisions for parliamentarians to appoint an interim government,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank.
The Joint Apparel Association Forum, which represents the Sri Lanka’s economically vital apparel industry, appealed for political stability in Sri Lanka, where the government imposed a state of emergency late last week.
“It is critical that a new government be appointed urgently to fill the current political vacuum,” the forum said in a statement.
DAY OF VIOLENCE
The attacks on government figures came in apparent reprisal for an incident just hours before the prime minister’s resignation.
The prime minister spoke to hundreds of supporters gathered at his official residence on Monday following reports that he was considering stepping down.
After his remarks, many of them, armed with iron bars, stormed a camp of those protesting against the government, beating them and setting fire to their tents.
Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the skirmishers, after having initially done little to hold back the government supporters, according to Reuters witnesses.
Thousands streamed into the streets in celebration after Rajapaksa’s resignation, but the mood quickly became tense.
Protesters attempted to tear down the gates of Temple Trees, his residence in the centre of Colombo, where broken glass and discarded footwear littered the surrounding streets on Tuesday, after some of the night’s worst clashes.
Military troops patrolled the area, where eight torched vehicles lay partially submerged in a lake. Discarded files and smashed equipment littered the ransacked offices of government officials.
In all, a police statement said 38 houses and 47 vehicles were set on fire across the country.