COLOMBO, July 14 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s main city, Colombo, was calm on Thursday as people waited for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, although a curfew was imposed and troops patrolled the streets to prevent any outbreak of violence.
Rajapaksa, who fled to the Maldives on Wednesday to escape a popular uprising over his family’s role in a crippling economic crisis, was on his way to Singapore, according to a Sri Lankan government source.
His decision on Wednesday to make his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the acting president triggered more protests, with demonstrators storming parliament and the premier’s office demanding that he quit too.
“We want Ranil to go home,” Malik Perera, a 29-year-old rickshaw driver who said he took part in the parliament protests, said on Thursday. “They have sold the country, we want a good person to take over, until then we won’t stop.”
Protests against the economic crisis have simmered for months and came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over government buildings in Colombo, blaming the powerful Rajapaksa family and allies for runaway inflation, shortages of basic goods and corruption.
Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards fled the country on an air force plane early on Wednesday and headed to the Maldives.
Inside the president’s residence, ordinary Sri Lankans wandered the halls on Thursday, taking in the building’s extensive art collection, luxury cars and swimming pool.
“The fight is not over,” said Terance Rodrigo, a 26-year-old student who said he has been inside the compound since it was taken over by protesters on Saturday along with the prime minister’s official residence.
“We have to make society better than this. The government is not solving people’s problems.”
The usual protest sites, however, were calm and organisers started handing the residences back to the government.
“With the president out of the country … holding the captured places holds no symbolic value anymore,” Chameera Dedduwage, one of the organisers, told Reuters.
But another organiser, Kalum Amaratunga, said a crackdown could be imminent after Wickremesinghe branded some protesters “fascists” in an address the previous evening.
The government has imposed a curfew in Colombo from noon (0630 GMT) on Thursday to early morning on Friday in a bid to prevent further unrest. Local media showed armoured vehicles with soldiers atop patrolling the city’s streets.
The military said troops were empowered to use force to protect people and public property.
ON KILLED IN CLASHES
Police said one person was killed and 84 injured in clashes between riot police and protesters on Wednesday near the parliament building and the prime minister’s office, as people demanded the ouster of both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe.
The army said two soldiers were seriously injured when they were attacked by protesters near the parliament building on Wednesday evening and that their weapons and magazines were snatched.
Police said the man who died was a 26-year-old protester who succumbed after he was injured near the prime minister’s office.
Rajapaksa had repeatedly assured the speaker of parliament that he would step down on Wednesday, but his resignation letter had not arrived as of Thursday, said an aide to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
The speaker could seek the advice of the attorney general on next steps if the letter did not come by the end of the day, said the aide, who did not want to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
Former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, both brothers of the president, informed the Supreme Court through their lawyer that they would remain in the country until at least Friday, in response to a petition filed by anti-corruption body Transparency International seeking action “against persons responsible for the current economic crisis“.
Immigration officials had stopped Basil from flying out of the country on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka’s parliament is expected to name a new full-time president on July 20, and a top ruling party source told Reuters Wickremesinghe was the party’s first choice, although no decision had been taken. The opposition’s choice is their main leader Sajith Premadasa, the son of a former president.