COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday called for opposition parties to join a unity government after his Cabinet resigned as protests grew over his leadership during the country’s worst economic crisis.
The South Asia nation has been struggling to pay for imports of essential goods – including food, fuel, and medicines – due to its dwindling foreign reserves. For several months, Sri Lankans have had to endure long queues at shops for basic supplies and have faced rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day.
All 26 of Sri Lanka’s Cabinet ministers, with the exception of the president’s brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, submitted letters of resignation late on Sunday after widespread demonstrations denouncing the government’s handling of the economic crisis continued despite a weekend curfew that was lifted Monday morning and the president declaring a state of emergency on Friday.
“The president invites all political parties representing the Parliament to take up ministerial posts and join to find solutions to the national crisis,” the president’s media office said in a statement on Monday.
The statement added that solutions to the deepening crisis “must be sought within the democratic structure itself.”
The powerful Rajapaksa family had held top positions in the island nation, and Sunday’s resignations included two brothers within the ruling family, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, as well as the PM’s son Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa – a move widely perceived as an effort to quell people’s anger.
The Sri Lankan president subsequently appointed four ministers “to ensure parliament and other tasks can be conducted in a lawful manner until a full Cabinet can be sworn in.”
Justice Minister Ali Sabry was appointed as the new finance minister, while previous ministers of foreign affairs, education, and highways will keep their positions.
Following the president’s call to form a unity government, the opposition maintained their demand for the nation’s leader to resign.
“We are not going to compromise with the government on the formation of a national coalition, all we want is the resignation of the president,” Ranjith Madduma Bandara, general secretary of main opposition Samagi Jana Bakawegaya party, told reporters.
“Forming a unity government is not the solution, this was a cry from the middle class for the president to go home,” Dr. Dayan Jayatillake, former Sri Lankan diplomat and vice president of the UN Human Rights Council, told Arab News.
“It is nothing but fair for him to gracefully exit from his post without aggravating the situation.”
Sri Lanka is also grappling with soaring inflation and reportedly has nearly $7 billion in foreign debt obligations. The government said last month that it was in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan program, as it turned to China and India for loans.
Ordinary Sri Lankans, as well as opposition lawmakers, defied the curfew to protest on Sunday, after authorities attempted to prevent protests by blocking access to major social media platforms — including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter — used to organize the demonstrations, for nearly 15 hours.
Public outrage on the streets continued throughout the country of 22 million people on Monday, with reports of authorities firing tear gas and water cannons in the last two days.
Sarath Kulatillake, who led a protest in Colombo on Sunday, said: “We are neither terrorists nor extremists, we have come to the streets since we are being hit below our belt.”