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Sri Lanka Leader’s Brother Quits as Prime Minister in Escalating Crisis

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The brother of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned as premier on Monday as weekslong protests over Asia’s fastest inflation turned violent, prompting the government to impose a curfew and call in the army.

Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa submitted his resignation to the president, his spokesman Rohan Weliwita said by phone. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has accepted the resignation, Sudeva Hettiarachchi, a spokesman for his office said.

The resignation paves the way for the president to put opposition members in key government roles, one solution he’s proposed to end the crisis. But it’s unclear if the prime minister’s resignation will placate angry citizens, who have called for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down as well.

By late Monday incidents of violence, especially targeting homes and properties of government lawmakers, were being reported from across the country. The DailyMirror newspaper reported that the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in the southern district of Hambantota was set on fire and police were forced to use tear gas to disperse protesters who tried to storm the prime minister’s residence in Colombo’s Temple Trees neighborhood.

Several calls to the police spokesman seeking confirmation of the news reports went unanswered.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation is unlikely to have any impact on the ground in Sri Lanka since his brother remains in charge in a sign that the family doesn’t want to give in, said Smruti S. Pattanaik, a senior research fellow and Sri Lanka expert at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

“Protests are going to continue as the economic situation worsens,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for the people of Sri Lanka, negotiations with the IMF are going to be long drawn and even then the remedial measures will mean further hardships.”

The prime minister’s resignation would dissolve the federal cabinet, raising questions about who would lead Sri Lanka’s ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund for emergency funds to buy food and fuel. Soaring prices of everything from gasoline to essential medicines have kept protests on the boil in Sri Lanka, which is close to bankruptcy and has suspended payments on foreign debt.

A Sinhala language statement from the president’s office on Monday said that President Rajapaksa had said that the cabinet and prime minister should resign during their last meeting. The president has now invited all parties in parliament to join together in a united national government, the statement said.

The island nation imposed a nationwide curfew Monday as clashes erupted between government supporters and citizens demanding the Rajapaksas resign over the nation’s worst economic crisis since independence.

Television footage on Monday showed groups setting fire to tents put up by anti-government demonstrators outside the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, the capital. Similar scenes played out in front of the city’s waterfront promenade, where for weeks citizens have lined up peacefully to call for the president to step down.

Local news reports also said the military was ordered to quell the violence in Colombo. There was no immediate comment from the army. Police could be seen using water cannons to disperse the crowds and douse flames.

Foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, said they condemned violence against peaceful protesters. The U.S. ambassador said the government should investigate anyone who incited violence and urged peace on the island.

A central bank press conference scheduled for Monday afternoon was also canceled after the curfew was imposed.

The economic crisis has morphed into a political one as opposition and protesters demand the Rajapaksas’ ouster and for the country’s constitution be amended to roll back the sweeping executive powers of the presidency.

The violence erupted as IMF officials are set to hold virtual talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts from Monday through May 23 on the country’s request for support from the multilateral agency.

Sri Lanka’s dollar bonds due this July were indicated on Monday 0.49 cents lower at 46.04 cents on the dollar, reversing the 0.48 cents gain on Friday.

An official at Colombo’s main public hospital said at least 78 people had been brought in with injuries from the violence. Both the Rajapaksas condemned the day’s violence on Twitter.

Late Friday, the president had declared a state of emergency, giving him sweeping powers to suspend laws, detain people and seize property.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa decried Monday’s violence in a tweet and warned against “serious repercussions if any peaceful protesters or media are harmed.”

—With assistance from Ramsey Al-Rikabi and Sudhi Ranjan Sen.

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