Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed Monday for an end to protests calling for his resignation over his handling of the worst economic crisis in decades, saying his government is launching a plan to rebuild the country.
In a televised speech to the nation, he asked for patience and told protesters that “every second” spent demonstrating on the streets takes away opportunities to receive crucial foreign currency.
Protesters, meanwhile, continued occupying the entrance to the president’s office for a third day Monday, demanding he step down.
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, saddled with dwindling foreign reserves and $25 billion in foreign debt to be repaid over the next five years. Nearly $7 billion is due this year. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are expected later this month, and the government has 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 medicine, 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.
Rajapaksa blamed the foreign exchange crisis on COVID-19 restrictions and the loss of crucial tourism income.
“We are embarking on an enormous program to overcome the crisis we face today. Every second spent by the president and this government is used up, exhausting avenues to rebuild our country,” he said.
“Friends, every second you protest on the streets, our country loses opportunities to receive potential dollars,” he said.
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 family of borrowing heavily to finance projects that have earned no money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
Supporters of camped out protesters supplied drinking water, food and tea while ambulances and doctors stood by to deal with any health emergencies. Muslim protesters broke their Ramadan fasting at the site, sharing food with those around them.
Dinush Thyagaraja, a 29-year-old tourism professional, said that he voted for Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election, believing he was the best candidate to restore national security after losing a friend to Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks that year on hotels and churches.
More than 260 people died in the attack carried out by local Muslim groups inspired by the Islamic State group.
“I do realize I did make a mistake, and I want to rectify that,” said Thyagaraja.
“I am unable to feed my family. I don’t know whether we will be able to enjoy a meal in another month to come.”
Even Rajapaksa’s former coalition allies are calling for him to be replaced with an interim prime minister and a multiparty government. They say they don’t want the powerful Rajapaksa family in an interim government because it is at the center of the public ire.
In his speech, Rajapaksa refused to yield power, saying the governing coalition will continue to rule Sri Lanka because opposition parties rejected his call for a unified government.
“We invited all political parties represented in parliament to join us and uplift the country. But they did not join us,” Rajapaksa said. “As the party in power, we took up that responsibility.”
The crisis and protests prompted many Cabinet members to resign.
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 form a majority and take control of parliament.