In Blow to Ruling Family, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Quits in Face of Unrest


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Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned on Monday, following months of sustained protests against a government dominated by his family, whose policies have pushed the small island nation into its worst economic crisis.

Mr. Rajapaksa made the move hours after his supporters instigated fierce clashes with government opponents on the streets of Colombo, the capital, a portentous turn in the protracted unrest that left dozens injured and prompted the police to call a nationwide curfew.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Mr. Rajapaksa’s decision to resign would satisfy the protesters, who have been demanding the resignation of his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, the president and currently the more powerful of the two.

But the concession by the elder Mr. Rajapaksa, 76, the family patriarch and a former president, was a significant blow to the fortunes of a dynasty that has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics for much of the past two decades.

“Effective immediately I have tendered my resignation as Prime Minister to the President,” Mr. Rajapaksa said on Twitter. It was unclear whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa had accepted his brother’s offer to step down.

As food prices have soared and the island of 22 million people has struggled with shortages of basic necessities like medicine, fuel and electricity, protesters have taken to the streets across the country demanding that the Rajapaksas leave the government.

Their anger has been particularly targeted at Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a defense official during Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, who was accused of human rights abuses during that conflict before being elected president in 2019.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers, who have held a number of top government roles, served first as prime minister and then as a two-term president. During his time as president, he ended the civil war through an aggressive military push against the separatist Tamil Tigers.

The elder Mr. Rajapaksa was defeated in his bid for a third term as president in 2015, but he mounted a bid to take over as prime minister in a messy episode that dragged on for months in 2018.

He was appointed to the post in a deal with the president who had succeeded him, but his claim was challenged by the sitting prime minister, who said he still commanded a parliamentary majority. After weeks of protracted dispute, which included open brawls inside Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa retreated from his claim.

A security lapse in 2019 led to Sri Lanka’s worst terrorist attacks in recent years — a spate of bombings on Easter Sunday that left more than 270 people dead. That created an opening for the family to return to power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, pitching himself as the strongman the wounded nation needed, secured a landslide victory and then appointed Mahinda as prime minister.

With the two brothers at the helm, and several other members of the family holding key positions, the government has been accused of mismanaging the country’s economy.

They announced big tax cuts, which affected the country’s balance sheet at a time when it faced shrinking foreign reserves and was already struggling to repay mounting debt. They also introduced a contentious ban on chemical fertilizers in a push for organic farming, which backfired and left a deep impact on the harvest and the country’s food security.

Covid lockdowns worsened the economic woes, as the travel restrictions deprived the country of crucial tourist dollars.

Skandha Gunasekara contributed reporting.

The New York Times


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