Sri Lanka’s beleaguered prime minister came under increasing pressure to step down on Saturday, as staunch allies broke ranks and backed street protests calling for resignations over a worsening economic crisis.
Media minister Nalaka Godahewa announced his support for the thousands outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office who are demanding he and other members of his family relinquish power.
Sri Lanka is suffering its most painful economic downturn since independence in 1948, with months of blackouts and acute shortages of food, fuel and other essentials.
The crisis has sparked nationwide protests, with angry demonstrators camped outside Rajapaksa’s office for more than two weeks.
Under pressure, the president dropped two of his brothers – Chamal and Basil – and nephew Namal from the cabinet this month, but protesters rejected the changes as cosmetic.
Godahewa, previously a staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, said the president should sack his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – the political head of the family – and allow an all-party interim government to take over.
He said the government had lost its credibility after the police killing of a protester on Tuesday. Godahewa said he had offered his resignation but President Rajapaksa had not accepted it.
“We need to restore political stability to successfully meet the economic crisis,” Godahewa said in a statement on his Facebook page.
“The entire cabinet, including the prime minister, should resign and (there should be) an interim cabinet that can win the confidence of all.”
Several other senior ruling party members, including Dullas Alahapperuma, a former media minister and cabinet spokesman, have asked the premier to step down.
“I urge the president to appoint a smaller cabinet with a genuine consensus representing all parties in parliament for one year maximum,” Alahapperuma said Saturday.
But the prime minister rejected their demands, insisting a majority of ruling party lawmakers still supported him.
“A majority of MPs want me, there may be a few who want me to go,” Mahinda Rajapaksa told Neth FM radio.
“People must be patient to overcome this crisis,” the 76-year-old added, rejecting calls for a unity cabinet.
“There cannot be any interim government without me as its prime minister.”
Police and the military stepped up security in the central town of Rambukkana on Saturday for the funeral of 42-year-old Chaminda Lakshan, who was shot dead when police broke up a protest against spiralling fuel prices.
Saffron-robed Buddhist monks chanted teachings ahead of the sunset burial at Lakshan’s family home.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa visited to offer his condolences to his widow and two children, while a large number of villagers attended.
Police said they had arrested a 28-year-old man who allegedly attempted to torch a fuel tanker before officers opened fire on the crowd, killing Lakshan.
Hundreds of people had been protesting a 64% increase in the price of diesel, commonly used for public transport.
Food, oil and electricity have been rationed for months and the country is facing record inflation.
Hospitals are short of vital medicines and the government has appealed to Sri Lankans abroad for donations.
Finance minister Ali Sabry, who is in Washington to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, warned on Friday that the economic situation in the South Asian nation will likely deteriorate even further.
“It is going to get worse before it gets better,” Sabry told reporters. “It is going to be a painful few years ahead.”
The IMF said in a statement it held “fruitful technical discussions” with the Sri Lankan delegation on the bailout request during the IMF and World Bank spring meetings in the US capital.
“Going forward, the IMF team will support Sri Lanka’s efforts to overcome the current economic crisis by working closely with the authorities on their economic program, and by engaging with all other stakeholders in support of a timely resolution of the crisis,” the IMF statement said.