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Sri Lanka's president sends tanks into streets and refuses to step down

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A curfew was briefly lifted today in Sri Lanka. People were allowed out only for a few hours, but tanks are still patrolling the streets. The Indian Ocean nation is in the middle of a spiraling political crisis brought on by an economic one. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports there's lots of uncertainty over what's to come.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through megaphone, non-English language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Police with megaphones have ordered anti-government demonstrators out of the protest camps that have become a fixture in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. The camps were attacked by government supporters earlier this week, and violence spread across the country. Now police and soldiers have orders to shoot anyone causing disturbance. But some protesters still defied a curfew last night to gather in the rain and once again call for their president's ouster.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

FRAYER: Not far away, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was barricaded in his official residence, protected by soldiers. From there, he gave a somber address to the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "My brothers and sisters," he said in his first appearance since the violence began. He appealed for calm and pledged to appoint a new prime minister within a week. His older brother had been in that role, but he resigned after his supporters attacked peaceful protesters. The Rajapaksa brothers have been the focus of months of protests. Many Sri Lankans blame them for mismanaging an economic crisis that's led to food and fuel shortages and rolling blackouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INDRAJIT COOMARASWAMY: This is an unprecedented crisis, the scale and magnitude of it.

FRAYER: Indrajit Coomaraswamy is the former governor of Sri Lanka's central bank. He spoke at an Asia Society panel last night, and he said this crisis was brewing for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COOMARASWAMI: We have had a toxic mix of populist politics and an entrenched entitlement culture among the people. It has been a high budget deficit, high inflation, high nominal interest rate and largely overvalued and volatile currency economy.

FRAYER: Those economic problems exploded under populist leadership and when global energy prices soared. President Rajapaksa was democratically elected 2 1/2 years ago. And in his address to the nation last night, he made clear he does not plan to step down. He did say he's willing to eventually abolish the executive presidency, which gives him sweeping powers as head of state and as head of government. But he gave no timeline for that.

So for now, tanks patrol the streets. Sri Lanka remains in a state of emergency, which gives Rajapaksa even greater powers. The military is protecting him, and that's worrying, says analyst Bhavani Fonseka at Sri Lanka's Centre for Policy Alternatives.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Under the Rajapaksas, we have seen the strengthening and entrenching of the military in Sri Lanka in terms of governance, in terms of civil administration. And they are an extremely powerful entity at the moment.

FRAYER: She's worried Sri Lanka could go from being ruled by one family, the Rajapaksas, to being ruled by the military if rival politicians can't establish a civilian government in the coming days.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. 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.

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