By KRISHAN FRANCIS – Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Sri Lankan protesters occupied the entrance to the president’s office for a second day on Sunday, demanding Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over the debt-ridden country’s worst economic crisis on record.
Hundreds of protesters braved heavy rain with raincoats and umbrellas and chanted anti-government slogans. Some called for the entire parliament to be dissolved to make way for a younger leadership.
“We will stay, we will not leave until we expel them,” said Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, a 32-year-old ex-soldier, of Rajapaksa, his powerful family and all lawmakers.
Pushpakumara said he fought with ethnic Tamil rebels in the latter stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which government soldiers won in 2009 after 2 1/2 decades. Both Rajapaksa, who served as a powerful defense bureaucrat, and his older brother Mahinda, who was then President and is currently Prime Minister, were credited with the victory.
“We will send them home, take back people’s money and send them to jail,” Pushpakumara said. “These people are destroying the country we saved and it’s sad to see the army and police protecting them.”
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Supporters distributed food, water and raincoats to the protesters.
The Indian Ocean island nation is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, burdened with $25 billion in external debt — 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.
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.
Much of the anger expressed through weeks of growing protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, who have held power for most of the past two decades.
Critics accuse the Rajapaksa brothers of borrowing heavily to finance projects that don’t make money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
SD Prageeth Madush, a 36-year-old businessman, spent the night at the protest site.
“If people ask you to leave, you should go democratically,” Madush said. “Anybody can see that people don’t like him (the President) anymore, but he doesn’t like to give up his power.”
“I’ll keep at it. We must endure difficulties if we want to give our children a better future,” he said.
The crisis and the protests triggered the resignation of the cabinet last Sunday. Four ministers have been sworn in as caretakers, but many of the key portfolios remain vacant.
Rajapaksa proposed forming a unity government, 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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