Sri Lanka remains in a political vacuum for a second day with opposition leaders yet to agree on who should replace its roundly rejected leaders, whose residences have been occupied by protesters angry about the country’s deep economic woes.
Protesters remain in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence, his seaside office and the prime minister’s official home, which they stormed on Saturday demanding the two leaders step down.
It was the most dramatic day of protests during three months of a crisis that has pushed many to the brink to despair amid acute shortages of fuel, food, medicine and other necessities.
The protesters, from all walks of life, vowed to stay put until the resignations of the leaders are official.
Mr Rajapaksa has said he will step down on Wednesday, according to the parliamentary speaker.
In a video statement on Monday, the first since Saturday’s protests, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reiterated that he will stay on until a new government is in place because he wants to work within the constitution.
“A government has to function according to the law. I am here to protect the constitution and through it fulfil the people’s demands. What we need today is an all-party government and we will take steps to establish that,” he said.
He also explained the sequence of events that led to the burning of his private residence on Saturday. He said angry protesters gathered around his house after a legislator, in what Mr Wickremesinghe said was an inaccurate tweet, claimed he had refused to resign at a meeting of parliamentary party leaders.
“Police baton charged and fired tear gas. The last option was to shoot. We did not shoot but they came and burnt the house,” he said.
“My biggest treasure was my library with 2,500 books,” Mr Wickremesinghe said, adding it contained books written during the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period from the 16th and 19th centuries.
There were old books written on Buddhism, some signed by leaders like former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, historical paintings and Buddhist artifacts, which he had planned to donate to his old school and a university after his death.
He said all but one painting had been salvaged.
Mr Wickremesinghe said he took over as prime minister to salvage the economy, and it would take at least a year to complete the initial steps needed for a full recovery.
Also on Monday, a group of nine cabinet ministers announced they will quit immediately to make way for an all-party government, outgoing justice minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe said.
Mr Wickremesinghe’s office said another group that met the prime minister had decided to stay on until a new government is formed.
The president has not been seen or heard publicly since Saturday and his location is unknown, but his office said on Sunday that he had ordered the immediate distribution of a cooking gas consignment to the public, suggesting he was still at work.
Opposition leaders have been in discussions to form a unity government, an urgent requirement of a bankrupt nation to continue discussions with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout programme.
Legislator Udaya Gammanpila said the main opposition United People’s Front and lawmakers who have defected from Mr Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition have had discussions and agreed to work together.
Main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and Dullas Alahapperuma, who was a minister under Mr Rajapaksa, have been proposed to take over as president and prime minister and have been asked to decide on how to share the positions before a meeting with the parliamentary speaker later on Monday.
“We can’t be in an anarchical condition. We have to somehow reach a consensus today,” Mr Gammanpila said.
Opposition parties are also concerned over military leaders making statements about public security in the absence of a civil administration.
Legislators have discussed military chief General Shavendra Silva’s statement over the weekend calling on people’s co-operation to maintain law and order, said Kavinda Makalanda, spokesperson for Mr Premadasa.
“A civil administration is the need, not the military in a democratic country,” Mr Makalanda said.