The National Times - Sri Lanka opposition rejects unity govt offer, demands president resign

Sri Lanka opposition rejects unity govt offer, demands president resign

Sri Lanka opposition rejects unity govt offer, demands president resign
Sri Lanka opposition rejects unity govt offer, demands president resign

Sri Lanka's opposition on Monday dismissed the president's invitation to join a unity government as "nonsensical" and instead demanded he resign over the country's worsening shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's overture came as armed troops looked to quell more demonstrations over what the government acknowledges is the country's most severe economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters trying to storm the private home of the prime minister -- the president's elder brother and the head of the family political clan -- in Tangalle, once a bastion of support for the Rajapaksas in the island's south.

The president asked opposition parties represented in parliament to "join the effort to seek solutions to the national crisis," after the late-night resignation of nearly all cabinet ministers to pave the way for a revamped administration.

But the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP) responded by urging Gotabaya Rakapaksa and his once popular and powerful family to immediately step down.

"He really must be a lunatic to think that opposition MPs will prop up a government that is crumbling," JVP lawmaker Anura Dissanayake told reporters in Colombo.

The main minority opposition party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), also dismissed the idea of their joining a Rajapaksa-led administration.

"His offer to reconstitute the cabinet with opposition MPs is nonsensical and infuriates the people who have been demanding his resignation," TNA spokesman and lawmaker Abraham Sumanthiran told AFP.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party made no formal statement, but its leader Sajith Premadasa vowed Sunday that it would not join any government featuring members of Rajapaksa's family.

Every member of Sri Lanka's cabinet except the president and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned late Sunday.

The country's central bank governor Ajith Cabraal -- who has long opposed the International Monetary Fund bailout now being sought by the country -- also stepped down on Monday.

The departures cleared the way for the country's ruling political clan to seek to shore up its weakening position and attempt to stem growing public protests.

But the president has already reappointed four of the outgoing ministers -- three of them to their old jobs -- while replacing brother Basil Rajapaksa as finance minister with the previous justice chief.

- 'Deck chairs on the Titanic' -

Political analysts said the offer of a unity government did not go far enough to address the economic crisis or restore confidence in the Rajapaksa administration.

"This is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Bhavani Fonseka, political analyst and human rights lawyer, told AFP. "This is a joke."

Political columnist Victor Ivan added that a cabinet reshuffle in the guise of a national government would not be acceptable to the public.

"What is needed is a serious reform programme, not just to revive the economy but address issues of governance," Ivan told AFP.

A critical lack of foreign currency has left Sri Lanka struggling to service its ballooning $51-billion foreign debt, with the pandemic torpedoing vital revenue from tourism and remittances.

The result has been unprecedented food and fuel shortages along with record inflation and crippling power cuts, with no sign of an end to the economic woes.

Trading was halted on the country's stock exchange seconds after it opened Monday as shares plunged past the five percent threshold needed to trigger an automatic stop.

Economists say Sri Lanka's crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.

The government has announced it will seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but talks are yet to begin.

- 'Gota lunatic' -

"Go lunatic, Gota lunatic," crowds chanted on Monday in Colombo, referring to the president, who had imposed a state of emergency a day after a crowd attempted to storm his residence.

Throughout Sunday evening, hundreds of people had staged noisy but peaceful demonstrations in towns across the island of 22 million, denouncing Rajapaksa's handling of the crisis.

A junior coalition partner announced it would quit the administration this week, a move that would further weaken Rajapaksa's majority in the legislature.