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Sri Lanka's cabinet has resigned en masse during economic crisis

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Sri Lanka, where an economic crisis is growing, more than 40 lawmakers walked out of the ruling coalition today. That leaves the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the minority in Parliament. There have been new calls today for both the president and prime minister to step down after the entire Cabinet resigned on Sunday. Shortages of food, medicine and fuel have sparked countrywide protests, and security forces have fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters marching on the president's home.

Vandana Menon is a reporter with The Print. We talked earlier.

VANDANA MENON: I've never seen total unity like this before. It's like a mini Arab Spring in Sri Lanka. People spontaneously broke curfew on Sunday to protest, as did members of the opposition. But yesterday, on Monday, it was very clear that the curfew was over because the streets were completely full of protesters, especially at major traffic junctions. Cars were passing by, sounding their horns in support. Some people even got out of their vehicles to join the protest. People didn't seem to mind the traffic congestion at all. The most popular slogans are ones calling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a thief and asking him to go home. And it's mostly young people and middle-class people who were out on the streets protesting.

MARTINEZ: The soaring inflation and the shortages in the country - what's been the impact of that?

MENON: Oh, there's a huge fuel crisis, and you can see vehicles queuing up at petrol stations. Hospitals have had to stop surgeries last week because of power cuts and shortages of medicines. Exams are canceled because students don't have paper. There are severe shortages in milk, milk powder, sugar, rice. When the curfew was announced on Saturday afternoon - it came into effect at around 6 p.m. - there was panic-buying, and shelves and grocery stores were empty. People seem to prefer accepting payments in U.S. dollars or Indian rupees over Sri Lankan rupees. That's how bad the currency is doing.

MARTINEZ: How has the government responded to these demonstrations?

MENON: Members of the opposition have been joining the demonstrations. But on Sunday, 26 Cabinet ministers resigned, except the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yesterday the president invited all members of Parliament to apply for any ministerial position. The people seem to be unhappy about this, and several Sri Lankans have told me that the changes in the Cabinet seem cosmetic. Another popular slogan last evening was, resignation does not mean reassignment, which is what the government seems to be doing. Ali Sabry, the justice minister, was sworn in as finance minister yesterday, but he's already submitted his resignation today, just one day into the job.

MARTINEZ: Considering the inflation, the shortages, the demonstration, any indication at all that President Rajapaksa will step down?

MENON: No, he seems to be holding on quite firmly. His party, the SLPP, lost majority last night when 42 members of Parliament decided to go independent. But Parliament has reconvened today. Let's see what happens. The Rajapaksas are a very political - a powerful political family, and they won in a landslide in 2020. So let's see what happens.

MARTINEZ: Vandana Menon is with The Print, reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thank you very much.

MENON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.