The Sri Lankan president on Wednesday promised to appoint a new prime minister, empower parliament and abolish the omnipotent executive presidency as a reform to stabilize a country plunged into violence caused by a political crisis and the worst economic crisis in memory.
In a televised speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that without taking sides, he condemned the attack on peaceful protesters by crowds who came to support his brother and former prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned on Monday.
“I am taking steps this week to appoint a new prime minister who has the confidence of the majority in parliament, who can win the confidence of the people and form a new cabinet to control the current situation and keep the country from collapsing. Anarchy and government activities are at a standstill, ”Gotabaya told Rajapaksa.
“We will present a new program for the new Prime Minister and pave the way for its implementation.”
Gotabaya told Rajapaksa that he would hand over most of his powers to parliament and, when things returned to normal, take steps to abolish the country’s powerful executive presidency.
The president’s speech comes as authorities on Wednesday marched on the capital’s streets and deployed troops, two days after pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters, sparking violence across the country.
Security forces have been instructed to shoot people believed to be involved in the violence, as sporadic arson and vandalism continue despite a nationwide curfew that began on Monday evening.
Anti-government protesters are demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa and his brother, a debt crisis that has almost bankrupted Sri Lanka and left its people in dire need of fuel, food and other necessities. In the past few days, nine people have been killed and more than 200 injured in violent attacks where mobs have set fire to buildings and vehicles.
Armored trucks with troops above entered some areas of Colombo. Disobeying the curfew, some protesters reorganized in front of the president’s office to continue the protests that began a month ago. Police have announced through loudspeakers that it is illegal to stay in a public place during the curfew.
Videos posted on social media have shown that the political vacuum could pave the way for military occupation, with soldiers riding motorbikes and a line of military trucks leaving the capital setting up checkpoints across the country.
Kamal Gunaratne, a top defense ministry official, denied the rumors at a news conference with the country’s army and navy chiefs.
“None of our officials want to take over the government. This has never happened in our country, and it is not easy to do it here, “said Gunaratne. President Rajapaksa is a former top army officer and the country’s official defense minister.
Gunaratne said the army would return to their barracks if the security situation returned to normal.
The State Department has expressed concern about the military deployment, with spokesman Ned Price saying they were “closely monitoring” the situation.
The departure of the Prime Minister has created an administrative vacuum without the cabinet, which has automatically dissolved with his resignation.
Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is being held at a naval base at Trincomalee on the northeast coast, said Navy Commander Nishantha Ulugetne.
After Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, she and her family were evacuated from her official residence as thousands of protesters tried to enter the heavily guarded colonial-era building.
The Indian embassy has denied rumors on social media that “some politicians and their families have fled to India” and denied that India is sending troops to Sri Lanka.
India’s foreign ministry on Tuesday reaffirmed its support for Sri Lanka, saying it had raised $ 3.5 billion to help overcome the economic crisis and ship essentials such as food and medicine.
On Monday, supporters gathered at the prime minister’s official residence to urge Mahinda Rajapaksa to remain in office. After the meeting, pro-government mobs beat up peaceful protesters who camped near the prime minister’s residence and the president’s office to demand his resignation, as police watched and did little to stop them. Across the country, outraged citizens responded by attacking pro-government and ruling party politicians.
At least nine people were killed and 219 were injured in the violence, including a lawmaker and two police officers from the ruling party, the defense ministry said. Besides, 104 buildings and 60 vehicles were set on fire.
Pro-government mobs were chased, beaten and robbed. Homes of government supporters were attacked and some businesses were set on fire.
Pope Francis has called for peace in Sri Lanka in a tweet.
“I am addressing a special thinking for the people of Sri Lanka, especially the youth,” he said.
“I urge everyone to maintain a peaceful attitude without resorting to violence. I urge all those responsible to respect human and civil rights and listen to the aspirations of the people. “
The European Union (EU) has called on authorities to launch an investigation into the incident and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has deferred the payment of $ 7 billion in foreign debt due this year out of $ 25 billion by 2026. Its total external debt is $ 51 billion.
The central bank on Wednesday called on the president and parliament to quickly restore political stability, warning that the economy could face further collapse in a few days.
“Even in order to make progress in debt restructuring, we need a stable government. We all need a cabinet, a parliament, a prime minister, a finance minister, “said Nandalal Warasinghe, the governor of the central bank.
“Without such an administration, it would be very difficult for us to make any progress.”