Sri Lanka's acting president declares state of emergency amid protests

Trade union representatives and activists shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lanka's acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, July 18, 2022. Wickremesinghe on Monday declared a state of emergency giving him broad authority amid growing protests demanding his resignation two days before the country's lawmakers are set to elect a new president. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Trade union representatives and activists shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lankan acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo. (Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press)
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Sri Lanka’s acting president Monday declared a state of emergency that gives him broad authority amid growing protests demanding his resignation two days before the country’s lawmakers are set to elect a new president.

Ranil Wickremesinghe became acting president Friday after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled abroad two days before and resigned after months-long mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

Wickremesinghe’s move to impose a state of emergency came as protests demanding his own resignation continued in most parts of the country, with some protesters burning him in effigy.

Wickremesinghe said in a statement that negotiations for a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund were nearing conclusion while discussions with foreign countries about assistance were also progressing. There has been no comment from the IMF to Wickremesinghe's assessment of the bailout talks.

He said that relief was being provided to people and steps taken to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.

However, he said “elements within society” were trying to disrupt peace. He did not specify which elements, but said that disruptions would not be allowed to hinder the country’s progress.

Wickremesinghe said the government would engage with peaceful protesters who had legitimate concerns and would find solutions for them. He also urged political parties to put aside their differences and form “an all-party government which would allow the country to recover from the economic crisis.”

There was no immediate response from political parties to his latest comments, but they have been working on forming a unity government.

Lawmakers who met Saturday began the process of electing a new leader to serve the rest of Rajapaksa's term. Nominations for the election of the new president will be heard Tuesday, and if there is more than one candidate, the lawmakers will vote Wednesday.

The emergency decree issued by Wickremesinghe invokes sections of the Public Security Ordinance that allow him to make regulations in the interests of public security, the preservation of public order, the suppression of mutiny, riot or civil commotion, and for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Under the emergency regulations, Wickremesinghe can authorize detentions, take possession of any property and search any premises. He can also change or suspend any law.

The island nation is engulfed in an unprecedented economic crisis that has triggered political turmoil.

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because the economy had previously been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

Sri Lanka is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but top officials say its finances are so poor that even obtaining a bailout has proven difficult.

The economic hardships led to widespread protests demanding the resignation of the government led by Rajapaksa. Although many ministers resigned in April and May, Rajapaksa remained in power until last week.

The main protests have occurred in the capital, Colombo, where protesters occupied the front of the president’s office for more than 100 days.

The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.

Rajapaksa flew first to the Maldives on Wednesday and then to Singapore.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.