COLOMBO: Tens of thousands marched outside the office of embattled Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Saturday in the biggest protest to date over the country’s dire economic and political crisis.
Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have suffered weeks-long blackouts and severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials in the country’s worst recession since independence in 1948.
The protest organized on social networks on Saturday attracted the largest number of people since the crisis erupted last month, according to AFP reporters And the pressure on Rajapaksa intensified further as the country’s powerful business community also began withdrawing its support for the president.
Men and women flooded Colombo’s waterfront and besieged the colonial-era Presidential Secretariat, chanting “Go Home Gota” and waving the national lion flag.
Others carried handwritten banners that read “It’s time for you to go” and “enough is enough.”
Barricades blocked the entrance to the president’s office with police in riot gear taking up position inside the heavily guarded compound.
“These are innocent people here. We are all fighting to live. The government must go and allow a capable person to run the country,” one man told the crowd.
The protests appeared to be peaceful, but a police officer said tear gas and water cannons were at the ready if needed. On Friday, security forces fired water cannons at student protesters.
Residents said there were also widespread protests in the capital’s suburbs, while Catholic and Anglican churches also brought their supporters onto the streets.
Catholic Church leader Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith led a protest in the city of Negombo, just north of Colombo, urging people to continue protesting until the Rajapaksa administration steps down.
“Everyone must take to the streets until the government is gone, these leaders must go. You must go. You have destroyed this country.”
Sri Lanka’s business community, which heavily financed Rajapaksa’s election campaign, also appeared to dump the president on Saturday.
“The current political and economic stalemate simply cannot continue any longer, we need a cabinet and caretaker government within a week at the latest,” said Rohan Masakorala, director of the Sri Lanka Rubber Products Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
His association joined 22 other business and industry organizations seeking a change in government and claim daily losses reached $50 million from fuel shortages alone.
In a joint statement, they said they were responsible for generating almost a quarter of the country’s $80.17 billion gross domestic product and warned that millions of jobs would be at risk.
Newly appointed central bank governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said a series of monetary policy mistakes had led to the current crisis without dollars to finance many imports.
In a desperate bid to shore up the rupee’s free fall, Weerasinghe on Friday implemented the country’s biggest-ever interest rate hike of 700 basis points.
“We are now in damage control mode,” he said.
Weerasinghe added that he expected the rupee to stabilize and dollar inflows to improve as he loosens his predecessor’s tight foreign exchange restrictions that he described as counterproductive.
The government is preparing for bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund next week, and Finance Ministry officials say sovereign bondholders and other creditors may have to cut back.
New finance minister Ali Sabry told parliament on Friday that he expects $3 billion from the IMF to support the island’s balance of payments over the next three years.
“We hope to get about a billion dollars a year in the next three years, adding support of three billion,” he said, adding that Colombo will also seek a debt moratorium.