Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early on Wednesday after demonstrators stormed his home and office and the official residence of his prime minister amid a three-month economic crisis that had begun to worsen.,
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards were dropped on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the Maldivian capital city of Male, according to an immigration official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Rajapaksa had, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave once the new government was formed.
Lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled on Tuesday to decide on the makeup of a new government to lift the bankrupt country out of economic and political collapse.
Promised resignations brought no end to the crisis, and protesters have vowed to occupy official buildings until top leaders are gone. For days, people flocked to Rashtrapati Bhavan almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, looking at pictures and relaxing on high beds with pillows. At one point, they even burnt down the prime minister’s private house.
While lawmakers agreed late Monday to elect a new president from 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 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 act as president until a replacement is selected – an arrangement that is sure to anger protesters who want to oust Wickremesinghe immediately.
Sri Lanka’s president is protected from arrest while in power, and it is possible that Rajapaksa planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. The corruption case against him in his former role as a defense officer was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation debt-ridden and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities. The shortage has sowed despair among the country’s 22 million people. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours trying to buy scarce fuel.
By the time the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy was expanding and a comfortable middle class was growing.
The political deadlock further compounded the economic crisis since the absence of an alternative unity government, as the International Monetary Fund threatened to delay the bailout as expected. The government will have to submit a plan on debt stability to the IMF in August before an agreement can be reached.
Meanwhile, the country is dependent on aid from neighboring India and China.
Asked whether China was in talks with Sri Lanka about a possible loan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official did not indicate whether such discussions were taking place.
“China will continue to offer assistance as our capability allows for Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
On Tuesday, Sri Lankan religious leaders urged protesters to leave government buildings. The protesters have vowed to wait until both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe step down.
Jehan Pereira, executive director of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, a think tank, said, “After the storming of government buildings, “it was clear that there is a general consensus in the country that the leadership of the government should be changed.”
Months of demonstrations have decimated the political dynasty of Rajapaksa, who has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Protesters accused the president and his relatives of extorting money from the state exchequer over the years, and Rajapaksa’s administration of accelerating the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the recession.
The president was neither seen nor heard from since Saturday, although his office issued a statement indicating that he continued to perform his duties.