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Sri Lanka's prime minister resigns after weeks of protests


Here is the sound of politics in Sri Lanka right now.


INSKEEP: Supporters and critics of the government clashed overnight in Colombo. That's the capital of the Indian Ocean nation. People have endured months of food and fuel shortages there. That led to protests, and now the prime minister has resigned. NPR's Lauren Frayer covers Sri Lanka and has been monitoring these events from our bureau in Mumbai. Welcome.


INSKEEP: What's happening there now?

FRAYER: Well, at first, it was sort of an eerie calm this morning after a night of violence, even the highway toll booths were empty. Everything was deserted. Trade unions have called a nationwide strike. But protesters are now amassing once again in the capital, Colombo, and that's despite a curfew that's in place till at least tomorrow. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa - or actually ex-prime minister - he resigned yesterday - and his family were evacuated from their Colombo home in a pre-dawn special forces operation. Their ancestral home in another part of the island was set on fire by protesters. Here's the thing - the prime minister's brother is still the democratically elected president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. And the Rajapaksa brothers have been the focus of weeks of protests by some of their countrymen who blame them for mismanaging an economic crisis. Some protesters are now lining routes to the airport. They want to prevent the Rajapaksa brothers from leaving the country. There's no indication they're trying to do that. Opposition leaders are calling for them to face charges, though. So there's a real political crisis here on top of a very dire economic one.

INSKEEP: I'm obliged to make sure of one thing here. You said the prime minister and his family were evacuated in a special forces operation. This isn't a military coup, right? This was actually the special forces, the military, helping them get away from protesters?

FRAYER: Yeah, protecting them from angry protesters outside. Yeah.

INSKEEP: How did people get so angry?

FRAYER: It's been a couple years of really difficult times for Sri Lanka. The economy relies on tourism and remittances from abroad. Both of those were really hard hit by the pandemic. Tourism was actually hurt in 2019, earlier than the pandemic, with these horrible Easter Sunday terror attacks, Islamist terror attacks that killed more than 200 people in Sri Lanka. And the tourism industry just hasn't recovered from that. So the country's low on foreign currency, which the government needs - U.S. dollars to buy fuel to keep the lights on. So there have been shortages of cooking gas, fuel for power plants. And then the Ukraine war has also sent oil and coal prices through the roof, exacerbating an already pretty dire situation for Sri Lanka. So, you know, we're all suffering inflation around the world, a lot of countries. Sri Lanka's inflation tops 20% right now. And we're seeing rolling blackouts, food shortages. It's a really desperate situation. And on top of all that, there's a heat wave now.

INSKEEP: So if the prime minister has resigned, who's in charge, and what's next?

FRAYER: Yeah, I mean, hopefully what's next is not more violence. Today, the government gave the military soldiers more emergency powers to detain suspects without charge. The prime minister's resignation means the Cabinet is dissolved. So that means there's no finance minister in the role. And that person's job is to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Those are bail-out loans that Sri Lanka desperately needs right now. So there's a bit of a power vacuum in Colombo right now.

INSKEEP: Always appreciate your insights, Lauren. Thanks so much.

FRAYER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.