COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president on Wednesday pledged to appoint a new prime minister, empower parliament and abolish the all-powerful executive presidential system in a bid to stabilize the country’s economic crisis as it plunges into memory of political crisis and worst-case violence.
In a televised address, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he was not taking sides and condemned the attacks on peaceful protesters by mobs who came to support his brother and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned on Monday.
“I’m taking steps to appoint a new prime minister this week who has the confidence of a parliamentary majority who can win the confidence of the people and form a new cabinet to control the current situation to stop the country from falling into anarchy and to keep the government in stagnant function,” said Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
“I will make way for a new work plan for the new prime minister and implement it.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would also hand most of his powers to parliament, taking steps to dismantle the country’s strong presidential administration when some normalcy returns.
The president’s speech came as authorities deployed armoured vehicles and troops on the streets of the capital on Wednesday, two days after pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters, sparking a wave of violence across the country.
Security forces have been ordered to shoot those believed to be involved in the violence as sporadic arson and vandalism continued despite a strict nationwide curfew that began Monday night.
Anti-government protesters have been demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa and his brother as the debt crisis nearly bankrupted Sri Lanka and left its people facing severe shortages of fuel, food and other necessities. Over the past few days, rioters have set fire to buildings and vehicles, killing nine people and injuring more than 200.
Armored trucks carrying soldiers drove into some areas of Colombo. Some protesters defied the curfew and regrouped opposite the president’s office, continuing demonstrations that began more than a month ago. Police announced through loudspeakers that it was illegal to stay in public during the curfew.
Videos posted on social media showed military trucks lined up on motorcycles setting up checkpoints across the country amid fears that a political vacuum could pave the way for a military takeover.
Senior Defense Ministry official Kamal Gunaratni dismissed speculation of a military takeover at a news conference with the country’s army and navy chiefs.
“None of our officials have the desire to take over the government. This has never happened in our country and it is not easy to do it here,” Gunaratne said. President Rajapaksa, a former senior military officer, remains the country’s official defense minister.
Gunaratne said the army would return to the barracks once the security situation returned to normal.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern about the military deployment, and spokesman Ned Price said it was “monitoring” the situation.
The Prime Minister’s departure created an administrative vacuum without a Cabinet, which automatically disbanded with his resignation.
Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is under protection at a naval base in Trincomalee on the northeast coast, Naval Commander Nishantha Ulugetenne said.
After Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, he and his family were evacuated from his official residence by thousands of protesters who tried to break into the heavily fortified colonial-era building.
India’s foreign ministry on Tuesday confirmed its support for Sri Lanka, saying it had provided $3.5 billion to help overcome the economic crisis and delivered essential items such as food and medicine.
Supporters gathered at the prime minister’s residence on Monday to urge Mahinda Rajapaksa to stay in office. After the meeting, pro-government thugs beat peaceful protesters camped near the prime minister’s residence and the president’s office, demanding their resignation, while police watched and did nothing to stop them. Across the country, angry citizens responded by attacking government supporters and ruling party politicians.
Pro-government thugs were hunted down, beaten and stripped naked. Homes of government supporters were attacked and some businesses were set on fire.
Pope Francis called for peace in Sri Lanka in a tweet.
“I urge everyone to remain peaceful and not to succumb to violence. I call on all who have a duty to listen to the wishes of the people and to respect human and civil rights.”
The EU called on the authorities to investigate the incident and hold those responsible for instigating and perpetrating the violence.
Sri Lanka, on the verge of bankruptcy, has suspended payments of $7 billion in foreign loans due this year, while foreign loans due by 2026 will reach $25 billion. Its total external debt is $51 billion.
The central bank on Wednesday urged the president and parliament to quickly restore political stability, warning the economy was threatened with further collapse within days.
“Even if we are to make progress on debt restructuring, we need a stable government. The cabinet, parliament, prime minister, finance minister all need it,” central bank governor Nandalar Verasinghe said.
“Without such a government, it is very difficult for us to make any progress.”