Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was booed and heckled on Sunday on his first public outing since protests erupted across the country demanding his ruling family resign over the worsening economic crisis.
Months of blackouts and acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines have caused widespread suffering across the South Asian island, which is enduring its worst-ever economic downturn.
Sunday saw the premier, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, visit one of the holiest Buddhist temples — housing a reputedly 23-century-old tree — in Anuradhapura.
But dozens of men and women carried hand-written placards and chanted slogans demanding that “thieves” be banned from the sacred city, which lies 200 kilometres north of Colombo.
“We will worship you if you stand down (as Prime Minister) and leave,” one man shouted.
Heavily armed Special Task Force (STF) commandos were deployed while police moved to clear the road for Rajapaksa’s convoy of six vehicles. Officials said the premier would return to the capital by helicopter.
Several major roads in the country are blocked by people protesting the lack of cooking gas, petrol and diesel.
The defence ministry in a statement said demonstrators were behaving in a “provocative and threatening manner” and disrupting essential services.
The government imposed a state of emergency granting the military sweeping powers to arrest and detain people on Friday, after trade unions brought the country to a virtual standstill in a bid to pressure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.
The president, 72, has not been seen in public since tens of thousands attempted to storm his private residence in Colombo on March 31.
Since April 9, thousands have been camping in front of his office in Colombo.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Anuradhapura is part of a flurry of religious activity by the ruling family as it clings onto power in the Buddhist-majority nation.
Local media reported that the president’s personal shaman, Gnana Akka, had charmed bottled water and delivered it to the protest site in the hope the movement would fizzle out.
Another report said the premier’s wife Shiranthi, a Catholic, had visited a Hindu temple seeking divine help for her family’s bid to remain in power.
Sources say the president may ask his brother Mahinda to stand down in an effort to clear the way for a unity government to navigate Sri Lanka through the crisis.
But the country’s largest opposition party has already said it will not join any government helmed by a member of the Rajapaksa clan.
Sri Lanka was hit by an economic crisis after the coronavirus pandemic hammered income from tourism and remittances.
In April, the country announced it was defaulting on its $51 billion foreign debt.
Finance Minister Ali Sabry warned last week that the country will have to endure unprecedented economic hardship for at least two more years.