Sri Lanka president Gotabaya Rajapaksa offers to share power as protests escalate


Gotabaya Rajapaksa | Photo: AP/PTI

Colombo: Sri Lanka's embattled president offered to share power with the opposition on Monday as protests demanding his resignation grew over the worsening shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's invitation to legislators came as heavily armed security forces looked to quell more demonstrations over what the government itself has acknowledged as the worst shortages of essentials since independence from Britain in 1948.

"The president invites all political parties in parliament to accept cabinet posts and join the effort to seek solutions to the national crisis," Rajapaksa's office said in a statement.

It stressed that solutions to the deepening crisis should be found "within a democratic framework", as thousands joined spontaneous demonstrations in cities, towns and villages.

The invitation came after 26 cabinet members -- every minister except Rajapaksa and his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa -- submitted letters of resignation at a late-night meeting on Sunday.

The country's central bank governor Ajith Cabraal -- who has long opposed an International Monetary Fund bailout for the country -- also stepped down on Monday.

The departures cleared the way for the country's ruling political clan to seek to shore up its weakening position.

The first nominations to the new cabinet saw the president re-appoint four of the outgoing ministers, three of them to their old jobs, while he replaced his brother Basil as finance minister with the previous justice chief.

Other cabinet vacancies will be filled after talks with the opposition, the president said.

But there was no immediate response from the opposition, which would not join any Rajapaksa-led government, according to comments Sunday by its main leader Sajith Premadasa.

Political analysts said the offer of a unity government did not go far enough to address the economic crisis or restore confidence in the Rajapaksa administration.

"This is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Bhavani Fonseka, political analyst and human rights lawyer, told AFP. "This is a joke."

Political columnist Victor Ivan added that a cabinet reshuffle in the guise of a national government would not be acceptable to people demanding the Rajapaksas' departure.

"What is needed is a serious reform programme, not just to revive the economy but address issues of governance," Ivan told AFP.

The South Asian island nation is in the grip of unprecedented food and fuel shortages along with record inflation and crippling power cuts, with no sign of an end to the economic woes.

Trading was halted on the country's stock exchange seconds after it opened Monday as shares fell by more than the five percent threshold needed to trigger an automatic stop.

The government has announced it will seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but talks are yet to begin.

Troops and police were placed on high alert as a 36-hour curfew ended at dawn despite intelligence reports warning of more unrest, a top security official told AFP.

Thousands took to the streets in the Rajapaksa bastion of Tangalle in the island's deep south demanding the resignation of the family, police said.

Anti-Rajapaksa rallies would have been unthinkable in the region in recent years.

"Go lunatic, Gota lunatic," crowds chanted on Monday in Kiribathgoda, referring to the president, who had imposed a state of emergency a day after a crowd attempted to storm his residence.

Throughout Sunday evening, hundreds of people had staged noisy but peaceful demonstrations in towns across the island of 22 million, denouncing Rajapaksa's handling of the crisis.

But Sunday's full-day curfew prevented larger protests that had been organised through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, all of which were blocked by the government.

The platforms were unblocked and the partial internet censorship ended after 15 hours, as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka ruled the ban illegal.

A junior coalition partner announced it would quit the administration this week, a move that would weaken Rajapaksa's majority in the legislature.

Many economists say Sri Lanka's crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.

AFP

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