First protest death fuels calls to oust Sri Lanka president

The first fatality after weeks of protests in Sri Lanka over food and fuel shortages intensified calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, with a key opposition leader saying Rajapaksa was “responsible for every death.”

Officers fired live rounds Tuesday night in the central Rambukkana area after tear gas failed to dispel a group of protesters who had blocked a train track and tried to set fire to a diesel truck, the police media unit in capital Colombo said by phone. One person was killed in the clash, according to Agence France-Presse and several local media outlets.

Those injured, including police officers, were taken to the nearby Kegalle hospital, the police media unit said, adding that an indefinite curfew has been imposed in the area. Demonstrators pelted police with stones. 

“Resign now!” said Harsha de Silva, a lawmaker from the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party in a Twitter post directed at the president.  As head of state, “you are responsible for every death.” 

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis—the worst since it gained independence more than 70 years ago—has brought angry citizens to the streets demanding the ouster of the Rajapaksa family. The government is now seeking as much as $4 billion in emergency aid this year to help the island nation ease hourslong power cuts, shorten fuel lines that go on for miles, and pay for imports of lifesaving drugs and food.

President Rajapaksa said on Twitter Wednesday that police would carry out an impartial and transparent inquiry about the incident “which led to the tragedy for which I’m deeply saddened.” He also urged citizens to remain peaceful. Earlier, the prime minister—his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa—had tweeted a similar comment.

Condemnation of the violence poured in on social media, including from several local celebrities and cricket stars. US ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said she was “deeply saddened by the horrible news” and called for a “full, transparent investigation.” 

Former national cricketer Kumar Sangakarra also tweeted to say, “using lethal force against unarmed protestors is unconscionable.”

Fears of a crackdown have persisted for weeks as protesters camp out in downtown Colombo to pressure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down. In a statement on Saturday, the army denied “sinister” rumors that soldiers were now training to assault protesters.

While the Rajapaksas have resisted calls to step down Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday said the government would support moves to trim presidential powers in an apparent olive branch to protesters. However, he hasn’t elaborated on the details of the constitutional changes he proposes, and it’s not clear if this will placate the family’s opponents.

A delegation led by Finance Minister Ali Sabry arrived in Washington this week hoping to secure rapid funding from the International Monetary Fund. An official from the multilateral lender said Tuesday night in Washington that discussions were still at an early stage.

“We are very concerned about the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka and hardships suffered by the people,” Masahiro Nozaki, IMF’s mission chief for the South Asian nation, said in a statement confirming talks this week with a delegation from Colombo. “Approval of an IMF-supported program for Sri Lanka would require adequate assurances that debt sustainability will be restored.”

Those assurances are also key to disbursing any emergency funding, he said.

The delegation’s visit follows the central bank’s decision this month to raise interest rates by a record 700 basis points. State-run Ceylon Petroleum Corp. on Tuesday increased petrol prices for a second time in April as imports become costlier after authorities ran out of dollars to defend a currency peg and allowed the rupee to float free.

Sri Lanka’s stock exchange is closed this week to allow investors to assess the economic conditions. The 5.875 percent note due July 25 was 0.25 cent higher on the dollar at 47.27 cents Wednesday.

Newly appointed power and energy minister Kanchana Wijesekera said on Twitter Tuesday that the country received new supplies of coal and diesel, implying an easing in the fuel and power crisis.