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Sri Lanka's president flees the country amid an economic crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Have you seen the videos of protests in Sri Lanka? The president has fled the country. The prime minister is leading in his place but says he will resign by today - all of this after protesters pushed into leadership offices demanding people step down. They're protesting after an economic disaster. We have called Ahilan Kadirgamar, who is vice president of the Federation of University Teachers Associations, which is one of the groups protesting.

Welcome.

AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What is the situation in your country today?

KADIRGAMAR: It's - today has been a day of turmoil. The president has fled the country, and the prime minister was trying to maneuver himself into the position of president. The president has appointed him as acting president, but everything is very unclear as to how this political scenario would move forward. Meantime, there are valiant protests in Colombo, and they have invaded the prime minister's office. All of this brings up questions about how the country is going to move forward.

We need political stability. And one question that really comes up is whether finally we would abolish the office of the executive president. This was brought about four decades ago, and it puts huge amount of powers and concentrates powers in one individual, which has led to so much corruption and patronage, and that office needs to be abolished. And that's been the consensus in the country. But no government has done that so far. So this might be an opening also to abolish the presidency and then work towards creating the economic stability that we need.

INSKEEP: Is there enough of the government still in place that there can be some kind of transition or transfer of power within the rule of existing law?

KADIRGAMAR: There would have to be an all-party interim government. It might even be a minority government. And we hope that, you know, in about six months to a year, that interim government could then pave way for elections to have a fresh mandate. But given the conditions in the country, that there is not enough petrol or diesel for even transport, it's very hard to move towards an election immediately. But once there is some amount of political stability and, more importantly, economic relief is given to the people - because the people are really suffering on a day-to-day level without even food - and then, hopefully, we can go towards elections and create a new government and then think about the questions of economic reform and rebuilding our economy.

INSKEEP: In all of this chaos, have you had a moment of feeling triumphant that you're getting what you want?

KADIRGAMAR: In a way, yes, because people have been struggling. The entire country has become politicized. You know, in day-to-day conversations, everybody's talking about the future of the country. And the protests have mostly been nonviolent. The military and the police have been tear gassing the protesters. But there is this will in the country to make much of our democracy. So it is a great moment for democracy in Sri Lanka.

INSKEEP: Ahilan Kadirgamar is a political economist and senior lecturer at the University of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. Thank you so much.

KADIRGAMAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.