Sri Lankan president flees country amid economic crisis
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, days after protesters stormed his home and office as well as the official residence of his prime minister amid a devastating economic crisis which caused severe shortages of food and fuel.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksahis wife and two bodyguards left on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives, according to an immigration official who expressed on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Rajapaksa had agreed to step down under pressure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he will leave once a new government is in place.
The president’s departure follows months of protests that have all but dismantled the political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
But there was no end to the crisis in sight, and protesters vowed to occupy government buildings until senior leaders are gone. For days, people have been flocking to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swim in the pool, marvel at the paintings, and lounge on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point they also burned down the Prime Minister’s private house.
At dawn, protesters began chanting against the president and prime minister, pausing at one point as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from loudspeakers. The demonstrators stood still, their backs straight and in silence. A few waved the flag.
“I’m not happy he fled. He should be in jail,” said Malik D’Silva, a 25-year-old protester occupying the president’s office who has taken part in protests for the past 97 days.
Rajapaksa “ruined this country and stole our money. We won’t stop until we have a new president and a new prime minister,” D’Silva said. He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019, believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bombings earlier this year killed more than 260 people.
Nearby, Sithara Sedaraliyanage, 28, and her 49-year-old mother carried black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home”, the rallying cry for the protests,
The two said they barely slept overnight, chanting alongside hundreds of protesters for hours, until the sun came up.
“We expected him to be behind bars – not escaping to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that?” Sithara exclaimed. so against a president. We want some accountability.
The air force said in a statement that it had provided a plane for the president and his wife to fly to the Maldives with the approval of the Ministry of Defence. He said all immigration and customs laws were followed.
A spokesman for the main opposition party in the Maldives’ parliament said it was regrettable that the archipelago’s government allowed Rajapaksa to disembark.
“Why we should be a haven for anyone is beyond me,” said Mohamed Shareef, spokesman for the Progressive Congress Coalition. He said the decision went against the feelings of Sri Lankans and Maldivians.
Sri Lankan lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled on Tuesday to decide on the composition of a new government to pull the bankrupt country out of economic and political meltdown. And they have not yet decided who will take over as Prime Minister and fill the Cabinet.
The new president will serve the rest of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 – and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then need to be approved by parliament.
The prime minister is to serve as president until a replacement is chosen – an arrangement that is sure to further anger protesters who want Wickremesinghe out immediately.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, and it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his escape while still enjoying constitutional immunity. A corruption case against him in his former role as defense chief was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation saddled with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities. Shortages have sown desperation among the country’s 22 million people. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours trying to buy scarce fuel.
Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy was booming and develop a comfortable middle class.
Sithara said people want new leaders who are young, educated and able to manage the economy.
“We don’t know who’s coming next, but hopefully they’ll do a better job of resolving the issues,” she said. “Sri Lanka was once a prosperous country.”
As a restaurant manager in a hotel in Colombo, she had a stable income. But with no tourists, the hotel closed, she said. His mother, Manjula Sedaraliyanage, used to work in Kuwait but returned to Sri Lanka a few years ago after suffering a stroke. Now the drugs she needs daily have become harder to find and more expensive, Sithara said.
The political stalemate fueled the economic crisis as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The government must submit a debt sustainability plan to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.
In the meantime, the country is counting on help from neighboring India and China.
Asked if China was in talks with Sri Lanka about possible loans, a Chinese foreign ministry official gave no indication if such talks were taking place.
“China will continue to offer assistance as our capabilities enable Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
After the storming of government buildings, “it was clear that there was a consensus in the country that the direction of government needed to change,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a think tank.
Protesters accuse the president and his inner circle of siphoning off money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajakpaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.