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Sri Lankan president and prime minister agree to step down amidst angry protests

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Sri Lankan president and prime minister have both agreed to step down after intense demonstrations yesterday that saw thousands of people take to the streets in the capital, Colombo. Both of their residences were stormed, and the prime minister's home was set on fire. At least 34 people were injured in scuffles with police. Protesters are calling for change as their flailing economy has left millions without access to fuel and food. Joining us now is Menaka Indrakumar. She's a journalist based in Colombo. Welcome to the show.

MENAKA INDRAKUMAR: Hi, Ayesha. Thank you very much.

RASCOE: So you've been out there covering the protests. What have you been seeing?

INDRAKUMAR: So yesterday, it started from morning. But the momentum for the protests was building up for the last two weeks. People are calling out on social media to everyone to gather because despite Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming the prime minister, things have actually not - there's not been much of a progress. Yes, the dollar went down, but the petrol fuels - and there is no gas shipment - oil shipment in sight. So people are extremely frustrated. And, of course, the cost of living, also, from the time that he took office, has increased - triple.

RASCOE: So what is the scene like today? Are there protests still going on?

INDRAKUMAR: Yes, yes. Still people have occupied the president's secretariat, as well as the president's house. They're indulging on every bit of luxury that the president has taken from all these people's hard-earned money.

RASCOE: Yeah, I saw people in the pools and all of that stuff.

INDRAKUMAR: Of course, yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah.

INDRAKUMAR: Yeah.

RASCOE: Well, now that both the president and the prime minister have agreed to step down, are there other demands from the protesters?

INDRAKUMAR: Well, the demand right now is to see that - they want arrests to happen. They want to see that they are held accountable because this is not something that happened just overnight. This has been in progress for a very, very long time, and people are demanding their money back.

RASCOE: And so how did the country get here? How did this economic crisis happen?

INDRAKUMAR: This is complete mismanagement. So this is not something that happened six months ago. This has happened since - let me think - 2019. And during COVID and the lockdown, money was going out of the country because people were so occupied with, you know, protecting themselves, safeguarding themselves from COVID-19 that they didn't know. So this was not something that happened six months ago. What happened two years ago is reflecting now.

RASCOE: What do you think will happen in the coming days?

INDRAKUMAR: Basically, what people who have analyzed the situation say that they - Ranil should not resign as prime minister because they do want someone who knows the situation to be in power, right? And right now, they are deciding who the president will be. There are some names given. But the thing is the names that are given - also, we don't have faith. But you can't help it. Something better than nothing, right? Because two or three other ministers, who were given very prominent appointments, also have resigned. So there is a question mark for that also. See, it's easy to resign, but finding proper replacements to take it forward is what is going to be a huge issue now.

RASCOE: Menaka Indrakumar is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thank you so very much.

INDRAKUMAR: Thank you, Ayesha. Have yourself a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.