Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday after months of ongoing protests against a government dominated by his family, whose policies have pushed the small island nation into its worst economic crisis.
Mr Rajapaksa made the move just hours after his supporters sparked fierce clashes with government opponents in the streets of Colombo, the capital, an ominous twist in the ongoing unrest that left dozens injured and police imposed a nationwide curfew.
It was not immediately clear whether Mr Rajapaksa’s decision to resign would satisfy protesters, who demanded the resignation of his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, the president and currently the more powerful of the two.
But the concession of the elder Mr. Rajapaksa, 76, the family patriarch and former president, was a major blow to the fortunes of a dynasty that has largely dominated Sri Lankan politics for the past two decades.
“I have tendered my resignation as Prime Minister to the President with immediate effect,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter. It was unclear whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa had accepted his brother’s offer to resign.
While food prices have risen and the island of 22 million people suffers from a shortage of basic necessities such as medicines, fuel and electricity, protesters across the country have taken to the streets to demand that the Rajapaksa leave the government.
Their anger was particularly directed at Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a defense official during Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, who was accused of human rights violations during that conflict before being elected president in 2019.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers, who has held a number of senior government positions, served first as Prime Minister and then as President for two terms. During his time as president, he ended the civil war with an aggressive military attack on the separatist Tamil Tigers.
The elder Rajapaksa was defeated in his bid for a third term as president in 2015, but he made a bid for prime minister in a messy episode that dragged on for months in 2018.
He was appointed to the post in a deal with the president who had succeeded him, but his claim was challenged by the incumbent prime minister, who said he still had a parliamentary majority. After weeks of protracted disagreements, including open brawls in parliament, Mr Rajapaksa withdrew from his claim.
A security breach in 2019 led to the worst terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in recent years – a spate of Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 270 people. That created an opening for the family to return to power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who established himself as the strongman the wounded nation needed, won a landslide victory and subsequently appointed Mahinda Prime Minister.
With the two brothers at the helm and several other members of the family in key positions, the government is accused of mismanaging the country’s economy.
They announced major tax cuts, affecting the country’s balance sheet at a time when it was grappling with dwindling foreign reserves and already struggling to repay its mounting debt. They also introduced a controversial ban on chemical fertilizers in an attempt at organic farming, which backfired and had a major impact on the country’s crops and food security.
Covid lockdowns exacerbated the economic woes as travel restrictions deprived the country of crucial tourist dollars.
Skandha Gunasekara reporting contributed.