Sri Lanka’s opposition, on Monday, dismissed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to join a unity government, calling it “nonsensical” and instead, demanded he should resign over the country’s worsening shortages of food, fuel, and medicines.
Protesters also took to the streets to ask the president to step down.
Rajapaksa’s overture came as armed troops looked to quell more demonstrations over what the government acknowledged as 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 had earlier 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.
“We will not be joining this government,” “The Rajapaksa family must step down,” the main opposition leader of Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Eran Wickramaratne, told newsmen.
It capped a day of rejections from political parties demanding the once popular and powerful ruling family relinquish power.
“He really must be a lunatic to think that opposition MPs will prop up a government that is crumbling,” lawmaker, Anura Dissanayake of the leftist People’s Liberation Front, told reporters in the capital Colombo.
“His offer to reconstitute the cabinet with opposition MPs is nonsensical and infuriates the people who have been demanding his resignation,” Tamil National Alliance’s Abraham Sumanthiran said.
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 had long opposed the International Monetary Fund bailout being sought by the country, also stepped down on Monday.
A day after en masse resignations, the president 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.
Political analysts said that 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; “This is a joke,” political analyst and human rights lawyer, Bhavani Fonseka, said.
Political columnist, Victor Ivan told newsmen 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 to address issues of governance,” Ivan told newsmen.
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 had seen unprecedented food and fuel shortages along with record inflation and crippling power cuts, with no sign of an end to the economic woes.
Economists said that Sri Lanka’s crisis had been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing, and ill-advised tax cuts.
The government plans to negotiate an IMF bailout, but talks are yet to begin.
Noisy demonstrations had spread across the country since Sunday evening with thousands of people joining.
Thousands of young men and women dressed mostly in black and carrying hand-written posters and placards staged a noisy but peaceful demonstration at a busy roundabout in Colombo on Monday.
“Step down Rajapaksa,” said one placard, while another read, “Return the funds stolen from the republic.”
“Gota lunatic, go home Gota,” crowds chanted elsewhere in the city, referring to the president, who imposed a state of emergency last week, the day after a crowd attempted to storm his residence.
The homes of several senior administration figures in various parts of the island were surrounded by protesters, with police firing tear gas to disperse the crowds.