COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Thousands of Sri Lankans rallied in the country’s main business district and Christian clergy marched in the capital to observe a day of protest on Saturday calling on the debt-ridden nation’s president to resign, as anxiety and anger over shortages simmered.
Protesters carrying national flags and placards, some bemoaning the hardships through songs, blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his administration for mismanaging the crisis. He has remained steadfast in refusing to step down even after most of his Cabinet quit and loyal lawmakers rebelled, narrowing a path for him to seek a way out as his team prepares to negotiate with international lending institutions.
“Go home Rajapaksas” and “We need responsible leadership,” read the placards.
The protest also included a large number of youngsters who had organized themselves through social media and refuse to accept any political leadership. Many carried signs, saying “You messed with the wrong generation!”
The protesters stayed around the president’s office and vowed not to leave until their mission is accomplished.
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.
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, saddled with $25 billion foreign debt over the next five years — 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.
Much of the anger expressed by weeks of growing protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who head an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as ministers last Sunday.
Thakshila Jayasinghe, a 35-year-old lawyer who joined the protest, said that she felt sorry for voting for Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. “I wonder what sin I have committed by voting for this president when I see the people suffer,” she said.
Reports said that at least four elderly people have died while standing in lines for hours trying to buy cooking gas or kerosene oil.
Jayasinghe said she voted for Rajapaksa believing he was the best candidate to restore national security following the 2019 Easter Sunday bomb attacks that killed more than 260 people. The attacks, blamed on local Muslim militants with ties to the Islamic State group, also shattered the tourism industry, alongside the pandemic, depriving Sri Lanka of hard currency.
At the same time, critics accuse Rajapaksa of borrowing heavily to finance projects that earn no money, such as a port facility built with Chinese loans.
Catholic clergy and lay people joined a rally from the “martyrs cemetery” in Negombo, north of the capital Colombo, where more than 100 people who died in the suicide attacks in the area’s St. Sebastian’s Church are buried.
They protested the economic crisis as well as the government’s alleged failure to uncover the conspirators behind the bombings.
“Today the country needs a major change and a new beginning,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told protesters. “We ask from every citizen of this country to come together and change this system. To get together and tell these people to leave.”
“It’s enough now, it’s enough destroying the country, now leave and hand it over to someone who can govern this country,” he said.
The protest later moved near the Anglican cathedral in Colombo.
The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has been critical of the investigation into the bombings, citing allegations that some members of the state intelligence units knew and met with at least one of the attackers.
Rajapaksa earlier proposed the creation of a unity government following the Cabinet resignations, 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.