Sri Lankan President Won’t Step Down Amid Growing Protests | Health, Medicine and Fitness
By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI – Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president will not step down and will instead face the country’s political and economic crisis, a key government minister said Wednesday despite continuing large protests demanding his resignation.
Sri Lanka has endured months of shortages of fuel and other essentials, and protests over economic turmoil have spread across the country and extended to criticism of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his politically powerful family.
Rajapaksa resisted calls for his resignation even after members of his own coalition did so this week, with ruling party lawmakers saying a caretaker government should replace his own and that failure to do so would blame them for the violence.
Rajapaksa “will not resign. We will deal with this. We have the strength to face this. We are not afraid,” Highways Minister Johnston Fernando told parliament on Wednesday.
Hours earlier, Rajapaksa revoked the state of emergency he declared last week after crowds of protesters demonstrated near his home in the capital, Colombo. The widely criticized emergency declaration gave him the power to act to protect public safety, including suspending all laws, allowing detentions and seizing property.
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Television and social media footage from Monday showed protesters breaking into the offices and homes of ruling party lawmakers and vandalizing some premises. Lawmakers urged the Speaker of Parliament to ensure their safety, and Fernando said they were ready.
“We are ready to face them if someone comes to attack us,” Fernando told parliament.
Rajapaksa had previously proposed the formation of a unity government to manage the crisis, but the main opposition party rejected it. His cabinet resigned late on Sunday and on Tuesday nearly 40 ruling coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote under the coalition’s 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 anger. Five other members of the family are lawmakers, including Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and a nephew, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa.
The family’s immense political influence has grown in part since Mahinda Rajapaksa was credited when he was president earlier with ending Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war with the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. in 2009.
It is now feared that the family’s control over key state functions has weakened independent institutions and left the government unable to deal with the crisis.
The government estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the Sri Lankan economy $14 billion over the past two years. Protesters also allege fiscal mismanagement – Sri Lanka has a huge external debt after borrowing heavily for infrastructure and other projects that don’t bring in money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations amount to about $7 billion this year alone.
Debts and dwindling foreign exchange reserves make it unable to pay for imported goods.
For several months, Sri Lankans have been queuing to buy fuel, food and medicine, most of which comes from abroad and is paid for in hard currency. Fuel shortages, along with reduced hydroelectric capacity in dry weather, have caused power cuts that last for hours each day.
Rajapaksa said last month his government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund and turned to China and India for loans while calling on people to limit fuel and electricity use.
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