Sri Lanka in free fall after deadline for president’s resignation passes

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Late-night clashes near Sri Lanka’s Parliament between protesters and security forces following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s flight from the country threatened to pull the island nation deeper into a political abyss, risking further delay to a much-needed International Monetary Fund bailout package.

Hours after a national curfew lifted early Thursday, there was an uneasy calm on the streets of Colombo, the capital. The military barricaded the road leading to Parliament, one of the few political landmarks that protesters have not managed to seize.

Rajapaksa, who had said he would resign Wednesday but let the deadline lapse, flew to the Maldives to escape public fury over an economy in free fall. The appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president further incensed demonstrators, who stormed his office after a confrontation with security forces. Later, protesters and security clashed near Parliament, and opposition leaders called on Wickremesinghe to resign as prime minister.

Rajapaksa’s departure without resigning has intensified chaos on the streets and among the political class. Many were happy that their longtime demand of ridding the country of Rajapaksa’s presence had been met, but the loss of public faith in the country’s political leaders has left officials shaken.

Sri Lanka’s top uniformed official, Gen. Shavendra Silva Sr., asked the public during a Wednesday night news conference to maintain order. He was flanked by the chiefs of the army, navy and air force.

“We call on all the people and the youth to be peaceful during this period until a new president is appointed,” he said.

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Wickremesinghe rebuked the protesters who captured his office for trying to hinder the process of selecting a new president.

“Some of these people have said they don’t care for the constitution or the law or even the Parliament,” he said Wednesday at a news briefing. “You can’t just tear up the constitution like that.”

Julie Chung, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, called for calm and a peaceful transfer of power.

“We urge all parties to approach this juncture with a commitment to the betterment of the nation & to work quickly to implement solutions that will bring long-term economic & political stability,” she tweeted.

Rajapaksa’s future also hangs in the balance. He is looking for passage out of the Maldives, most likely to Singapore, according to a former minister in the Rajapaksa government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter.

Experts say an agreement with the IMF, which is essential for economic recovery, can only be formalized when there is stable political leadership.

Ongoing negotiations with the IMF have been disrupted by the recent turmoil, concerning Sri Lanka’s international creditors.

Manjuka Fernandopulle, a lawyer specializing in debt restructuring, said bondholders are “looking for a partner that believes in continuity, has credibility, legitimacy and confidence reposed in them by the people.”

The economic crisis has left Sri Lanka unable to repay its foreign debt, and with little money to import much-needed fuel and food. Fuel is in dangerously short supply and prices for essential items like rice have doubled from a year ago.

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