By KRUTIKA PATHI, KRISHAN FRANCIS and BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president of Sri Lanka on Friday until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned after mass protests against the country’s economic collapse forced him out of office.
Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker said lawmakers would meet on Saturday to choose a new leader after Rajapaksa resigned effective Thursday. Their choice would serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term ending in 2024, President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said.
He promised a quick and transparent process that should be done within a week.
The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by parliament. With Rajapaksa out, the pressure on Wickremesinghe was increasing.
In a televised statement, Wickremesinghe said he would take steps to amend the constitution to limit presidential powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against “insurgents “.
Referring to clashes near Parliament on Wednesday night, in which many soldiers were reportedly injured, Wickremesinghe said real protesters would not be involved in such actions.
“There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents. We will take legal action against the insurgents,” he said.
Wickremesinghe became interim president after Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday, flying first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. The prime minister’s office said Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president on Friday before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.
Sri Lanka is running out of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline was all the more shocking because before this crisis, the economy was booming, with a growing and comfortable middle class.
Protest leader Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest, said they were “happy because we have been through a difficult journey”.
“We are happy, as a collective effort, because this Sri Lankan struggle has been participated by all citizens of Sri Lanka, even the Sri Lankan Diaspora,” he said.
After Rajapaksa’s resignation, protesters cooked and distributed rice pudding – a food Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories. At the main protest site outside the president’s office in Colombo, people hailed his resignation but insisted that Wickremesinghe must step down as well.
“I am happy that Gotabaya is finally gone. He should have resigned earlier, without causing much trouble,” said Velayuthan Pillai, 73, a retired bank worker, as patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers. .
But he added that “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He was helping them. He too must go.
The capital has returned to an uneasy calm after the withdrawal of protesters who had occupied government buildings on Thursday. But with the political opposition in parliament fractured, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seemed no closer.
The country remains a powder keg and the military warned on Thursday that it had the power to react in the event of chaos – a message that some found disturbing.
Abeywardana, the Speaker of Parliament, urged the public to “create a peaceful atmosphere in order to implement the proper parliamentary democratic process and to enable all members of Parliament to attend meetings and function freely and conscientiously.”
Sri Lanka is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so bad that even securing a bailout has proven difficult, Wickremesinghe said recently.
Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning off money from government coffers and hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa admitted that some of his policies contributed to the collapse of Sri Lanka.
Maduka Iroshan, 26, a university student and protester, said he was “delighted” that Rajapaksa quit because he “ruined the dreams of the younger generation”.
Months of protests reached a frenzied peak last weekend when protesters stormed the president’s home and office and Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.
Images of protesters inside the buildings – lying on sleek couches and beds, posing outside officials’ desks and touring the lavish venues – captured the world’s attention.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government is in place, but changed tack on Thursday, apparently fearing an escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes outside parliament which injured dozens.
Protester Mirak Raheem noted that the absence of violence was important, although their work was far from done.
“It’s really something incredible, the fact that this happened following a largely peaceful protest,” Raheem said. “But obviously this is just the beginning, that there is a longer way to go in terms of the kind of work that needs to be done, not only to rebuild the economy but to create public confidence in this political system.
The protests underscored the dramatic downfall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Rajapaksa and his wife slipped away overnight on a military plane on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, he traveled to Singapore, according to the city-state’s foreign ministry. He said he had not applied for asylum and it was unclear whether he would stay or move on. He has already obtained medical services there, including heart surgery.
Given that Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, Rajapaksa likely wanted to leave while he still enjoyed constitutional immunity and had access to the plane.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, and his brother, who was president at the time, were hailed by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority . Despite accusations of wartime atrocities, including ordering military attacks on ethnic Tamil civilians and abducting journalists, Rajapaksa remained popular among many Sri Lankans. He has always denied the allegations.
For more of AP’s coverage in Sri Lanka, go to https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka