Sri Lankan protesters occupied the entrance to the president’s office for a second day on Sunday, demanding Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign over the debt-ridden country’s worst economic crisis in memory.
Hundreds of demonstrators weathered heavy rain with raincoats and umbrellas and chanted anti-government slogans. Some called for the entire Parliament to disband to make way for a younger leadership.
“We will stay on, we will leave only when we have chased them out,” Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, a 32-year-old ex-soldier, said of Rajapaksa, his influential family and all the lawmakers.
Pushpakumara said he fought in the last stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war with ethnic Tamil rebels, which government soldiers won in 2009 after 2 1/2 decades. Both Rajapaksa, who served as a powerful defense bureaucrat, and his older brother Mahinda, who was then president and is currently prime minister, were credited with the victory.
“We will send them home, take the people’s money back and send them to jail,” said Pushpakumara. “These people are destroying the country that we saved and it is sad to see the army and police protecting them.”
Supporters distributed food, water and raincoats to the protesters.
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, saddled with $25 billion foreign debt — nearly $7 billion of which is due this year alone — and dwindling foreign reserves. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are expected later this month, and the government had turned to China and India for emergency loans to buy food and fuel.
For months, Sri Lankans have stood in long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicines, most of which come from abroad and are paid for in hard currency. The fuel shortage has caused rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day.
Much of the anger expressed by weeks of growing protests has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, which has been in power for most of the past two decades.
Critics accuse the Rajapaksa brothers of borrowing heavily to finance projects that earn no money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
SD Prageeth Madush, a 36-year-old businessman, spent the night at the protest site.
“When the people ask you to go, you should go democratically,” said Madush. “Anyone can see that the people don’t like him (the president) anymore but he doesn’t like to let go of power.”
“I am going to stay on. We have to suffer difficulties if we are to make a better future for our children,” he said.
The crisis and protests triggered the Cabinet’s resignation last Sunday. Four ministers were sworn in as caretakers but much of the key portfolios are vacant.
Rajapaksa proposed the creation of a unity government but the main opposition party rejected the idea. Parliament has failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis after nearly 40 governing coalition lawmakers said they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions, significantly weakening the government.
With opposition parties divided, they too have not been able to show majority and take control of Parliament.