- The leader, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard a military plane bound for the city of Male, the air force said
- His escape came days after protesters stormed his home and office as the country ran out of food and fuel
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country for the Maldives on Wednesday, hours before he was due to step down amid widespread protests over his handling of a devastating economic crisis.
Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane, the air force said in a statement.
It added a request had come in from the current government and was approved by the defence ministry.
A government source and a person close to Rajapaksa, 73, said he was in Male, the capital of the Maldives. The president would most likely proceed to another Asian country from there, the government source said.
A spokesman for the main opposition party in the Maldives’ parliament said it was regrettable that the archipelago’s government allowed Rajapaksa to land.
“Why should we be a safe haven for anyone is beyond me,” said Mohamed Shareef, a spokesman for the Progressive Congress Coalition. He said the decision was against the sentiments of both Sri Lankans and Maldivians.
The president’s flight brings an end to the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa clan that has dominated politics in the South Asian nation for the last two decades.
Protests against the economic crisis have simmered for months and came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over key government buildings in Colombo.
For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, marvelling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point, they also burned the prime minister’s private home.
“I am not happy he has fled. He should be in jail,” said Malik D’ Souza, a 25-year-old protester occupying the president’s office. He has taken part in demonstrations for the past 97 days.
Rajapaksa “ruined this country and stole our money. We will not stop until we have a new president and prime minister,” D’ Souza said. He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019 believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bomb attacks earlier that year killed more than 260 people.
Critics blame the Rajapaksas and their allies for runaway inflation, corruption and a severe lack of fuel and medicines.
Rajapaksa was due to step down as president on Wednesday to make way for a unity government, after protesters stormed his and the prime minister’s official residences.
The president has not been seen in public since Friday.
Sources close to Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, said he was yet to receive any communication from Rajapaksa. A source close to Rajapaksa said he would send in his resignation letter later on Wednesday.
That would make Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the acting president, although he has also offered to resign. If he does, the speaker will be the acting president until a new leader is elected, as per the constitution.
A statement from protests leaders, however, has warned of a “decisive fight” if Wickremesinghe does not resign by Wednesday afternoon.
“If we don’t hear of the resignation of the president and the prime minister by the evening, we may have to gather back and take over parliament or another government building,” said Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne, one of the organisers of recent protests.
“We are strongly against the Gota-Ranil government. Both have to go.”
Parliament will reconvene on Friday and will vote to elect a new president five days later, Abeywardena has previously said.
Government sources and aides said the president’s brothers – former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and ex-finance minister Basil Rajapaksa – were still in Sri Lanka.
The US embassy in Colombo, which is in the central district of the city, said it was cancelling consular services for the afternoon and for Thursday as a precautionary measure.
The island nation’s tourism-dependent economy was hammered first by the Covid-19 pandemic and then suffered from a fall in remittances from overseas Sri Lankans. A ban on chemical fertilisers damaged farm output although the ban was later reversed.
The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that affected government finances while shrinking foreign reserves curtailed imports of fuel, food and medicines.
Petrol has been severely rationed and long lines have formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6 per cent last month and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70 per cent in coming months.
Sri Lanka is currently seeking bridge financing to restore the flow of food and fuel to the population as it negotiates with the International Monetary Fund on a longer-term loan programme to stabilise the nation’s finances.
Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May after protests against the family turned violent. He remained in hiding at a military base in the east of the country for some days before returning to Colombo.
In May, the Rajapaksa government appointed Mohamed Nasheed, the speaker of the Maldives parliament and a former president, to help coordinate foreign assistance for crisis-hit Sri Lanka.
The same month, Nasheed publicly denied allegations that he was helping Mahinda Rajapaksa secure safe haven in the Maldives.
On Tuesday, immigration officials prevented Basil Rajapaksa from flying out of the country.
It was not clear where Basil Rajapaksa, who also holds US citizenship, was trying to go. He resigned as finance minister in early April amid heavy street protests and quit his seat in parliament in June.