Sri Lankan President flees the country amid economic crisis


The President of Sri Lanka fled the country early Wednesday, days after protesters stormed his home and office, as well as his prime minister’s official residence, amid a three-month economic crisis that has sparked a deep crisis Lack of food and fuel.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards flew aboard a Sri Lanka Air Force plane bound for Male, the capital of the Maldives, according to an immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Rajapaksa had agreed to resign under pressure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave once a new government was in office.

Lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled on Tuesday to decide on the composition of a new government to lift the bankrupt country from economic and political collapse.

Three days after protesters stormed the President's home in Sri Lanka
Thousands of people thronged the capital for a glimpse inside the Presidential Palace, three days after protesters stormed the President’s home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 12, 2022.

Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Promised resignations brought no end to the crisis, and protesters have vowed to occupy official buildings until top leaders leave. For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost like a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, admiring the paintings and lounging on the pillow-laden beds. At one point they also burned down the prime minister’s private home.

While lawmakers agreed late Monday to choose a new president from among their ranks on July 20, they have yet to decide who will take over as prime minister and fill the cabinet.

The new president will serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 – and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then need to be confirmed by parliament.

The prime minister is to serve as president until a replacement is elected – an arrangement sure to anger protesters who want to oust Wickremesinghe immediately.

Sri Lankan Presidents are protected from arrest during their term of office and it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his escape when he still had constitutional immunities. A corruption charge against him in his previous role as a defense official was dropped when he was elected president in 2019.

Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation indebted and unable to pay for importing basic necessities. The shortage has sown despair among the country’s 22 million inhabitants. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours to try to buy scarce fuel.

Two days after protesters stormed the President's home in Sri Lanka
Thousands of people thronged the capital for a glimpse inside the Presidential Palace, two days after protesters stormed the President’s home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 11, 2022.

Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images

By the time the recent crisis intensified, the Sri Lankan economy had grown and produced a comfortable middle class.

The political impasse has fueled the economic crisis as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay a hoped-for International Monetary Fund bailout. The government must submit a debt sustainability plan to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.

The country is now dependent on help from neighboring India and China.

Asked if China is holding talks with Sri Lanka over possible loans, a Chinese foreign ministry official did not say whether such talks were being held.

“China will continue to offer assistance as our capabilities enable Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s religious leaders urged protesters to evacuate government buildings. The protesters have vowed to wait until both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe are out of office.

After the government buildings were stormed, “it was clear that there was a consensus in the country that there should be a change in governance,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a think tank.

Months of demonstrations have virtually crushed the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

The demonstrators accuse the President and his family of siphoning money from the treasury for years and Rajapaksa’s government of accelerating the country’s collapse through poor management. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajakpaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown.

The president had not been seen or heard from since Saturday, although his office issued statements showing he continued to carry out his duties.

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