Protesters besieged the Sri Lankan President, who fled to the Maldives, and the Prime Minister’s office

  • President Rajapaksa flees hours before his planned resignation
  • Demonstrators have demanded the dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
  • Wickremesinghe announces nationwide curfew till Thursday morning

COLOMBO, July 13 (Reuters) – Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on Wednesday following an economic collapse that unleashed a popular uprising that looked set to end his family’s rule of the country for the past two decades.

His decision to appoint his ally, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as interim president sparked further protests, with protesters besieging the prime minister’s office demanding that he also go.

Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards took off from the main international airport near Colombo on an air force flight early Wednesday morning, the Air Force said in a statement.

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After arriving in the Maldives, he is expected to visit Singapore next, a government source said.

Officials declined to reveal the whereabouts of Wickremesinghe, who announced a nationwide curfew until Thursday morning in an attempt to prevent further unrest after protesters occupied his office.

Police stationed outside fired several rounds of tear gas but the protesters were not deterred and entered the premises.

“It feels amazing, people have been trying to capture this space for about three hours,” said college student Sanjuka Kavinda, 25, standing near the open door of the prime minister’s office. “Everyone in this meeting will be here till Ranil steps down no matter what.

Local media reported that a 26-year-old protester was hospitalized after being hit by tear gas and died of breathing difficulties.

In a statement, Wickremesinghe said the protesters had no reason to besiege his office.

“They want to stop parliamentary proceedings. But we have to respect the constitution,” he said.

Sri Lanka has been run by the powerful Rajapakse family for the past two decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the President of the country in November 2019.

On the ground floor of the whitewashed colonial-era building, dozens of protesters sang Sinhala pop songs. A large group of security personnel armed with guns were sitting in a room.

Protest organizers and security personnel guided the marchers up a central flight of wooden stairs in the center of the building to the top floor where the prime minister’s suite is located.

In a nearby room on the top floor, plush furniture hastily pushed into corners and a line of armed security guards diverted visitors.

A new leader will arrive next week

Parliament is expected to appoint a new full-time president next week, and a top ruling party source told Reuters Wickramasinghe is the party’s first choice, although no decision has been made.

Wickremesinghe’s attempt to stick with protesters who say he is a close ally of the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated the country since Rajapakse’s older brother Mahinda became president in 2005, will anger Wickramasinghe.

“An MP with one seat is appointed Prime Minister. Now the same person is appointed Acting President,” opposition presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa said on Twitter. “This is Rajapaksa-style democracy. What a travesty. What a tragedy.”

Despite his departure, Rajapaksa’s own resignation was still unconfirmed late Wednesday. Earlier, Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yappa Abeywardena said that Rajapaksa had called him and told him that his resignation letter would arrive later on Wednesday. An aide to Abeywardena had no information about the letter.

Maldivian media reported that Singapore is likely to give asylum to Rajapakse. read more

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

Economic crisis

The Rajapakses and their allies blamed inflation, shortages and corruption when hundreds of thousands of people took over government buildings in Colombo last weekend after months of protests against the economic crisis. read more

The president’s brothers, former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, are still in Sri Lanka, government sources and aides said.

Sri Lankan immigration officials on Tuesday prevented Basil Rajapaksa, who resigned as finance minister in April, from leaving the country. read more

Wickremesinghe, whose private home in Colombo was set on fire on Saturday, offered to resign as prime minister but did not repeat the offer after he was sworn in as president on Wednesday. If so, the Speaker will be the Acting President until a new President is elected on July 20 as planned.

Amid economic and political turmoil, Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond prices hit record lows on Wednesday.

As a precautionary measure, the US Embassy in Colombo said it is canceling consular services for the afternoon and Thursday.

The island nation’s tourism-based economy was hit first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by a drop in remittances from Sri Lankans abroad. Although the ban on chemical fertilizers affected production, the ban was later reversed. read more

In 2019 the Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts that hit the government’s finances, while shrinking foreign reserves cut imports of fuel, food and medicine.

Petrol prices have been slashed and long queues have formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation stood at 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned that it will rise to 70% in the coming months.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president from 2005-2015 and then prime minister under his brother, stepped down in May after anti-family protests turned violent. He remained in hiding at a military base in the east of the country for a few days before returning to Colombo.

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Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh, Alastair Paul, Lin Chen, and Shilpa Jamkandikar; Krishna N. By Das and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Sam Holmes, Sri Navaratnam and Kim Coghill

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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