Crowds cheer Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on rare outing

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was booed and intimidated on Sunday during his first public outing since protests broke out across the country, demanding his ruling family resign amid the worsening economic crisis.
Months of power outages and acute shortages of food, fuel and medicine have led to widespread suffering in the South Asian island, which is experiencing the worst economic downturn on record.
On Sunday, the prime minister, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, visited one of the holiest Buddhist temples — with a reportedly 23-century old tree — in Anuradhapura.
But dozens of men and women carried handwritten signs and chanted slogans demanding “thieves” be banned from the holy city, which is located 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Colombo.
“We will adore you if you step down (as prime minister) and leave,” one man shouted.
Heavily armed Special Task Force (STF) commandos were deployed as police cleared the way for Rajapaksa’s six-vehicle convoy. Officials said the prime minister would return to the capital by helicopter.
Several major roads in the country have been blocked by people protesting the lack of cooking gas, petrol and diesel.
The defense ministry said in a statement that protesters were acting “provocatively and threateningly” and disrupting essential services.
The government on Friday declared a state of emergency and granted the military sweeping powers to arrest and detain people after unions brought the country to a virtual standstill in an attempt to pressure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.
The 72-year-old president has not been seen in public since tens of thousands attempted to storm his private home in Colombo on March 31.
Since April 9, thousands of people 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 to power in the Buddhist-majority country.
Local media reported that the president’s personal shaman, Gnana Akka, charmed bottled water and delivered it to the protest site in hopes of quelling the movement.
Another report said the prime minister’s wife, Shiranthi, a Catholic, had visited a Hindu temple to seek divine help in her family’s quest to remain in power.
Sources say the president could ask his brother Mahinda to resign in a bid to pave the way for a unity government to help see Sri Lanka through the crisis.
But the country’s largest opposition party has already said it will not join any government backed by a member of the Rajapaksa clan.
Sri Lanka was hit by an economic crisis after the coronavirus pandemic boosted tourism revenues and remittances.
In April, the country announced it could no longer pay its $51 billion in foreign debt.
Finance Minister Ali Sabry warned last week that the country will have to endure unprecedented economic hardship for at least another two years.

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