By KRISHAN FRANCIS – Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Thousands of Sri Lankans rallied in the country’s central business district and Christian clergymen marched in the capital to observe a day of protests on Saturday that have called for the indebted nation’s president to resign amid fear and anger bottlenecks were brewing.
Demonstrators carrying national flags and placards, some lamenting the plight in song, accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government of poorly handling the crisis. He has steadfastly refused to step down even after most members of his cabinet have resigned and loyal lawmakers have rebelled, narrowing a path for him to find a way out while his team prepares to negotiate with international lenders.
“Go home Rajapaksa” and “We need responsible leadership” read the posters.
The protest also included large numbers of youth who had organized through social media and refused to accept political leadership. Many carried signs that read, “You messed with the wrong generation!”
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The protesters stayed around the President’s office and vowed not to leave until their mission was complete.
For months, Sri Lankans have waited in long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, mostly from abroad and paid for in hard currency. Fuel shortages have resulted in rolling power outages lasting several hours a day.
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, burdened with $25 billion in external debt over the next five years — nearly $7 billion of it this year alone — and dwindling foreign exchange reserves. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are expected later this month, and the government had approached China and India for emergency loans to buy food and fuel.
Much of the anger expressed through weeks of growing protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lead an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as ministers last Sunday.
Thakshila Jayasinghe, a 35-year-old lawyer who joined the protest, said she was sorry for voting for Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. “I wonder what sin I committed in voting for this president when I see people suffering,” she said.
At least four elderly people have reportedly died after queuing for hours to buy cooking gas or kerosene oil.
Jayasinghe said she voted for Rajapaksa because she believes he is the best candidate to restore national security after the Easter Sunday 2019 bombings that killed more than 260 people. The attacks, blamed on local Muslim militants with ties to Islamic State, also rattled the tourism industry alongside the pandemic and robbed Sri Lanka of hard currency.
At the same time, critics accuse Rajapaksa of taking on large amounts of debt to fund projects that don’t make money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
Catholic clergy and laity joined a rally from the “Martyrs’ Cemetery” in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, where more than 100 people who died in the suicide bombings at the area’s St. Sebastian’s Church are buried.
They protested the economic crisis and the government’s alleged failure to uncover the conspirators behind the bombings.
“Today the country needs a great change and a fresh start,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, told the protesters. “We call on every citizen of this country to come together and change this system. To get together and tell these people to go.”
“It’s enough now, it’s enough to destroy the country, now leave it and give it to someone who can rule this country,” he said.
The protest later moved to near the Anglican Cathedral in Colombo.
The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has criticized the investigation into the bombings, citing claims that some members of state intelligence knew and met with at least one of the attackers.
Rajapaksa previously proposed forming a unity government after the cabinet resigns, but the main opposition party rejected the idea. Parliament failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 MPs in the ruling coalition said they would no longer vote according to the coalition’s instructions, severely weakening the government.
Since the opposition parties are divided, they too have not been able to form a majority and take control of parliament.
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