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Amid crisis, Lanka president vows to curtail own powers

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COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged on Wednesday to give up most of his executive powers but stopped short of yielding to demands for his resignation over the country’s economic crisis.

The 72-year-old, in his first address to the nation since the start of a month-long protest campaign calling on him to quit, said he will announce a unity government in the coming days. “I will name a prime minister who will command a majority in parliament and the confidence of the people,” Rajapaksa said in a televised speech.

He did not name the successor of his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stepped down as prime minister on Monday to clear the way for a new cabinet.

“I will work to give more powers to parliament and activate the key elements of the 19th amendment to the constitution,” he said, referring to democratic reforms he overturned soon after his 2019 election. Sri Lanka has moved Mahinda Rajapaksa to a naval base for his safety, the defence secretary said on Wednesday, following violence targeting the family for its role in the country’s worst economic crisis.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pledge to reinstate the amendment would deprive him of the ability to control senior appointments to the public service, police, elections office and judiciary.

Sri Lanka has suffered through months of lengthy blackouts and shortages of food, fuel and other vital goods after running out of foreign exchange to pay for imports.

The island nation’s central bank chief warned on Wednesday that the economy will “collapse” unless a new government was urgently appointed.

Rajapaksa said he needed the public’s support “to ensure that the country does not collapse and we are able to provide the essentials to all”.

Soldiers stood behind wrought-iron barricades and next to burnt-out buses in the heart of capital Colombo on Wednesday, guarding almost deserted streets after a convulsion of deadly clashes.

The occasional car ambled past long rows of shuttered shops before being halted by troops, who cast wary eyes over its occupants as they enforce a nationwide curfew imposed to stop mob violence.

Security forces have been instructed to shoot on sight anyone engaged in arson or committing further violence after struggling to curb unrest over the past two days.

Protesters have camped outside the president’s seafront office in the capital Colombo for more than a month to press him into standing down.

A nationwide curfew is in effect after government loyalists attacked anti-Rajapaksa protesters on Monday, sparking reprisals by furious mobs.

At least nine people died in the ensuing violence while dozens of homes belonging to government lawmakers and supporters were set alight.

Security forces have largely curbed public disorder after a huge troop deployment, with soldiers ordered to shoot on sight anyone engaged in looting or violence.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2022

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