(COLOMBO, Sri Lanka) — The president of Sri Lanka fled the country early Wednesday, days after protesters stormed his home and office and the official residence of his prime minister amid a monthslong economic crisis that triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.
According to an official from the immigration department, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife, as well as two of their bodyguards, boarded a Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft bound for Male, capital of Maldives.
Rajapaksa said he would resign if pressed. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister and he stated that he would be leaving once a new government had been formed.
While lawmakers agreed that they would elect a presidential candidate next week, Tuesday saw them struggle to agree on the structure of the government that will lift the nation out of its economic and political crisis.
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The crisis has not been ended by the promised resignations. Protesters have taken to occupation of the buildings to ensure that the current leaders do not leave. For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction — swimming in the pool, marveling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point, they also burned the prime minister’s private home.
Protesters started chanting at dawn against the prime minister and president, stopping for a moment when the Sri Lankan national song was being played from the speakers. The demonstrators remained silent, their backs straight and with their eyes closed. A few raised the flag.
“I am not happy he has fled. He should be in jail,” said Malik D’ Silva, a 25-year-old protester occupying the president’s office. For the past 97 day, he participated in demonstrations.
Rajapaksa “ruined this country and stole our money. We will not stop until we have a new president and prime minister,” D’ Silva said. D’ Silva said that he voted in Rajapaksa for 2019 because he believed his military experience would protect the country from Islamic State-instigated bomb attacks, which earlier this year claimed more than 220 lives.
Nearby, 28-year-old Sithara Sedaraliyanage and her 49-year-old mother wore black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home,” the rallying cry of the demonstrations, which have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
They claimed they had hardly slept overnight and chant alongside hundreds of demonstrators for hours until dawn.
“We expected him to be behind bars — not escape to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that?” Sithara exclaimed. “This is the first time people in Sri Lanka have risen like this against a president. We want some accountability.”
Although legislators agreed to vote for a new president late Monday from their ranks, on July 20 they will not have yet chosen who would take the role of prime minister or make up the Cabinet.
The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 — and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have 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.
Presidents of Sri Lanka are not subject to arrest when they are in office. It is possible that Rajapaksa plotted his escape from power while still enjoying constitutional immunity. He was removed from a corruption case against him for his role in the defense department when he was elected president.
Corruption and bad management have led to the country being indebted and finding it difficult to import basic necessities. The shortages have sown despair among the country’s 22 million people. Sri Lankans don’t eat and queue up hours for fuel.
Before the crisis, Sri Lanka’s economy was growing and sustaining a middle class.
Sithara claimed that people are looking for new leaders who can run the economy and are both young and educated.
“We don’t know who will come next, but we have hope they will do a better job of fixing the problems,” she said. “Sri Lanka used to be a prosperous country.”
She used to make a good living as a manager of a Colombo hotel’s restaurant. The hotel shut down after no tourists came in. Manjula Sedaraliyanage her mother used to work in Kuwait, but she returned to Sri Lanka several years ago following a stroke. Sithara stated that the medication her mother needs daily has been more difficult to obtain and is now much more costly.
Since the International Monetary Fund was unable to provide a bailout, the political impasse exacerbated the crisis. To reach an agreement, the government must present a plan to ensure that its debt is sustainable to IMF by August.
The country relies on the assistance of China and India as a temporary solution.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry official did not respond to a question about whether China had been in discussions with Sri Lanka regarding possible loans.
“China will continue to offer assistance as our capability allows for Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” said the spokesman, Wang Wenbin.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s religious leaders urged protesters to leave the government buildings. They have pledged that they will wait for Rajapaksa’s and Wickremesinghe to leave office.
After the storming of the government buildings, “it was clear there is a consensus in the country that the government leadership should change,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a think tank.
The protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. Although Rajakpaksa admitted that some of his actions contributed to the collapse, the family denied any corruption.
— Joe McDonald from the Associated Press Beijing was a contributor to this report.
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