May 23, 2024

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Sri Lankan president flees to Maldives, protesters storm Prime Minister’s office

Sri Lankan president flees to Maldives, protesters storm Prime Minister's office
  • President Rajapaksa flees hours before planned resignation
  • Demonstrators demand the ouster of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
  • Wickremesinghe declares a state of emergency, retracts shortly after

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on Wednesday amid a popular uprising triggered by an economic meltdown, apparently ending his family’s nearly two decades of domination of the country.

But his decision to leave his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president sparked further demonstrations, with protesters storming the prime minister’s office, calling for him to step down as well.

The Air Force said in a statement that Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards departed the main international airport near Colombo on an Air Force plane early on Wednesday morning.

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Reuters graphics

A government source said he was expected to go to the side of Singapore.

Wickremesinghe’s office initially declared a state of emergency and a curfew with immediate effect, then canceled them, but said the measures would be announced again at a later date.

Police stationed outside the prime minister’s office fired several bursts of tear gas at the protesters, but were not deterred and rushed into the compound. Wickremesinghe’s team refused to reveal his whereabouts.

“It feels so great, people have been trying to take this place for about three hours,” said university student Sanchuka Kavinda, 25, who was standing next to the gate of the Prime Minister’s office. “No matter what, everyone in this crowd will be here until Ranil steps down as well.”

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Local media said a 26-year-old protester was taken to hospital after being exposed to tear gas, and died of breathing difficulties.

Wickremesinghe said in a statement that the protesters had no reason to storm his office.

“They want to stop the parliamentary process. But we must respect the constitution. That’s why the security forces advised me to impose a state of emergency and a curfew. I’m working on it,” he said.

Sri Lanka has been run by the powerful Rajapaksa family for the greater part of the last two decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President of the country in November 2019.

In the basement of the whitewashed colonial-era building, dozens of protesters sang Sinhala pop songs. A large group of security men armed with assault rifles sat in a room.

Protest organizers and security personnel guarded a central wooden staircase at the heart of the building, directing onlookers to and from the upper floor where the Prime Minister’s Room was located.

In an adjoining room upstairs, plush furniture was hastily pushed into corners and a row of armed security personnel ushered visitors.

New leader due next week

Parliament is expected to name a new full-time speaker next week, and a senior ruling party source told Reuters that Wickremesinghe was the party’s first choice although no decision was made.

Wickremesinghe’s attempt to hold on to him would anger protesters who say he is a close ally of the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated the country since Rajapaksa’s older brother Mahinda became president in 2005.

“One MP has been appointed as Prime Minister. Now the same person has been appointed as Acting President,” opposition presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa said on Twitter. “This is Rajapaksa’s style of democracy. What a farce. What a tragedy.”

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Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abhiwardena said Rajapaksa called him and informed him that his resignation letter would arrive later on Wednesday.

The government source said Rajapaksa was still in Mali, the capital of the Maldives, where local media reported that Singapore was likely to grant him asylum. Read more

An aide to Rajapaksa and the Singapore government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Economic crisis

Protests against the economic crisis have been escalating for months and culminated last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over government buildings in Colombo, blaming the Rajapaksas family and their allies for hyperinflation, shortages and corruption. Read more

Government sources and aides said the president’s two brothers, former President and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, are still in Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe, whose private residence in Colombo was set on fire on Saturday, had offered to resign as prime minister but did not repeat the offer after becoming acting president on Wednesday. If he goes, the speaker will be acting president until a new president is elected on July 20 as scheduled.

Amid economic and political chaos, Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond prices hit their lowest levels on Wednesday.

The US Embassy in Colombo said it will cancel consular services in the afternoon and Thursday as a precaution.

The island nation’s tourism-dependent economy took an initial hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then a drop in remittances from Sri Lankans abroad. A ban on chemical fertilizers hurt production, although the ban was later rescinded. Read more

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The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that hurt government finances, while shrinking foreign reserves slashed imports of fuel, food and medicine.

Gasoline was severely rationed and long queues formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. The overall inflation rate was 54.6% last month and the central bank warned that it could rise to 70% in the coming months.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005 to 2015 and later prime minister under his brother, resigned in May after protests against the family turned violent. He remained hidden in a military base in the east of the country for several days before returning to Colombo.

On Tuesday, Sri Lankan immigration officials banned Basil Rajapaksa, who resigned as finance minister in April, from traveling outside the country. Read more

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Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh, Alasdair Pal, Lin Chen and Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Written by Krishna in Das and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Sam Holmes, Shree Navaratnam and Kim Coogill

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.