COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned on Monday with his country in economic free fall, bowing to months of protests in a significant blow to the fortunes of a family dynasty that has dominated the island’s politics for nearly two decades.
Mr. Rajapaksa made the move hours after his supporters instigated fierce clashes with government opponents on the streets of Colombo, the capital, a portentous turn in the protracted unrest that left dozens injured and prompted the police to call a nationwide curfew.
It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Rajapaksa’s decision to resign would satisfy the protesters, who have been demanding the resignation of his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, the president and currently the more powerful of the two.
But the concession by the elder Mr. Rajapaksa, who is 76, moved the protesters a step closer to their goal of ridding the government of the Rajapaksa family and reversing what they call ruinous policies, even as the prime minister unleashed violence and chaos on his way out.
“Effective immediately I have tendered my resignation as Prime Minister to the President,” Mr. Rajapaksa, the family patriarch and a former president, said on Twitter. It was unclear whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa had accepted his brother’s offer to step down.
As food prices have soared and the island of 22 million people has struggled with shortages of basic necessities like medicine, fuel and electricity, protesters have taken to the streets across the country in largely peaceful demonstrations.
Sri Lanka’s usable foreign exchange reserves have shrunk to below $50 million, the finance minister said, and in recent weeks the country has been relying on credit lines from allies like India for basic necessities.
The demonstrators’ anger has been particularly aimed at Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a defense official during Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, who was accused of human rights abuses during that conflict before being elected president in 2019.
Mr. Rajapaksa had been rumored in recent weeks to be seeking to calm the protests by asking his brother to resign as prime minister and open the way for a new government. Those rumors intensified over the weekend after the prime minister was jeered by protesters as he paid one of his few visits to a Buddhist temple during the economic crisis.
But as of Monday morning, Mahinda Rajapaksa was still holding on to his post, addressing hundreds of supporters who had been bused in for a meeting at his residence. The supporters then walked out and charged on peaceful protesters camped along Colombo’s scenic Galle Face and outside the presidential secretariat, attacking them and dismantling their protest sites.
Video footage showed supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa thrashing the anti-government protesters with poles. Health officials said that more than 100 people had been taken to hospitals with wounds. Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, was among those assaulted. Two of the main campsites were burned down.
“I saw my friend get hammered. He was taken to the hospital. They burned down several tents,” said Thimira Malinda Pathirina, 27, a university student. “The police and riot squad watched and waited. They didn’t do anything when we were getting assaulted, and our tents were set on fire. We are peaceful protesters.”
Condemnation of the violence was swift from diplomats as well as opposition leaders.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa, who just resigned, must be arrested and brought before the law along with all others who organized and brought the attackers to Colombo today,” M. A. Sumanthiran, an opposition lawmaker, said.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers, who have held a number of top government roles, served first as prime minister and then as a two-term president. During his time as president, he ended the civil war through an aggressive military push against the separatist Tamil Tigers.
The elder Mr. Rajapaksa was defeated in his bid for a third term as president in 2015, but he mounted a campaign to take over as prime minister in a messy episode that dragged on for months in 2018.
He was appointed to the post in a deal with the president who had succeeded him, but his claim was challenged by the sitting prime minister, who said he still commanded a parliamentary majority. After weeks of protracted dispute, which included open brawls inside Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa retreated from his claim.
A security lapse in 2019 led to Sri Lanka’s worst terrorist attacks in recent years — a spate of bombings on Easter Sunday that left more than 270 people dead. That created an opening for the family to return to power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, pitching himself as the strongman the wounded nation needed, secured a landslide victory and then appointed Mahinda as prime minister.
With the two brothers at the helm, and several other members of the family holding key positions, the government has been accused of mismanaging the country’s economy.
They announced big tax cuts, which affected the country’s balance sheet at a time when it faced shrinking foreign reserves and was already struggling to repay mounting debt. They also introduced a contentious ban on chemical fertilizers in a push for organic farming, which backfired and left a deep impact on the harvest and the country’s food security.
Covid lockdowns worsened the economic woes, as the travel restrictions deprived the country of crucial tourist dollars.
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.