Sri Lanka President Seeks Unity Government To Save Economy

Sri Lanka’s newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses the media representatives during his visit at the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple in Colombo on July 20, 2022. Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka’s new president Ranil Wickremesinghe has formally invited MPs to join an all-party unity government to revive the bankrupt economy by undertaking painful reforms, his office said Sunday.

Wickremesinghe took office earlier this month after public anger over the island nation’s worst economic crisis forced his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and quit.

In a meeting, Saturday with the influential monks of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines, Wickremesinghe outlined his plans.

“As the president, I wish to start a new journey,” Wickremesinghe was quoted as telling the monks in his first meeting with the powerful Buddhist clergy since taking office.

“I would like to get all the parties together and go on that journey as well as to form an all-party government.”

He has written to all lawmakers asking them to join a unity government.

A former opposition MP, Wickremesinghe, 73, took up the premiership for the sixth time in May after Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda resigned and there were no other takers for the job.

Wickremesinghe went on to become the president after Gotabaya escaped on July 9 when tens of thousands of protesters angry at the economic crisis stormed the presidential palace.

He fled to Singapore where he resigned five days later and Wickremesinghe became interim president and later won a vote in parliament confirming his ascension.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have endured months of lengthy blackouts, record inflation and shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Since late last year, the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports.

In April, Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and opened bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Wickremesinghe told monks that the economy would decline further this year with a contraction of 7.0 percent, but expected recovery next year.

“I am working to re-stabilise this economy and build the economy in such a way that the country can be developed by 2023, 2024.

“It is a difficult task. But if you don’t do it now, it will be more difficult. We should think about whether we should try to cure the patient by giving medicine or let the patient die without giving medicine,” he added.

He said inflation currently running at 60.8 percent could go up further.

After his election as president, Wickremesinghe, while ordering security forces to clear protest sites, appointed an interim cabinet leaving the door open for others to join.

He has called a new session of parliament on Wednesday and is expected to expand the 18-member cabinet to accommodate members from opposition parties.

Sri Lanka President’s Office To Reopen After Protesters Crackdown

 

Police and army personnel stand guard in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on July 23, 2022. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka’s besieged presidential office will reopen on Monday, police said, days after anti-government demonstrators were flushed out in a military crackdown that triggered international condemnation.

Widespread public anger over the island’s unprecedented economic crisis saw protesters storm and occupy the colonial-era building earlier this month.

Soldiers were forced to rescue then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his nearby residence on the same day, with the leader fleeing to Singapore and resigning days later.

Troops armed with batons and automatic weapons cleared the 92-year-old presidential secretariat in a pre-dawn raid Friday on the orders of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

At least 48 people were wounded and nine arrested in the operation, during which security forces tore down tents set up by protesters outside the complex in April.

“The office is ready for reopening from Monday,” said a police official Sunday, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“The siege of the secretariat, which lasted since May 9, has now been lifted.”

Police said forensic experts had been called in to check damage to the Presidential Secretariat and gather evidence.

Western governments, the UN and human rights groups have condemned Wickremesinghe for using violence against unarmed protesters who had announced their intention to vacate the site later on Friday.

Wickremesinghe defended the crackdown and said he had told Colombo-based diplomats on Friday that blocking government buildings was unacceptable.

Police spokesman Nihal Talduwa said protesters were free to continue their demonstrations at a designated site near the presidential office.

“They can remain at the official protest site. The government may even open a few more places for demonstrators in the city,” Talduwa said Sunday.

The military operation to clear the secretariat building and its immediate surroundings came less than 24 hours after Wickremesinghe was sworn in and just before a new cabinet was appointed.

 Burning fuel crisis

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have also endured months of lengthy blackouts, record inflation and shortages of food, fuel and petrol.

Its government is officially bankrupt, having defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt, and is currently in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

The economic crisis which fuelled the protest campaign shows no sign of easing, but the government announced Sunday it would reopen schools which had remained shut for the better part of a month.

The education ministry said students and teachers will be asked to return to school only for three days each week as transport is still hampered by a national fuel shortage.

Miles-long queues of motorists waiting to fill up were seen across the country Sunday despite the government introducing a rationing system.

New president Wickremesinghe has said he will unveil a fresh budget for the rest of the year in August as previous revenue and expenditure estimates were unrealistic.

New Sri Lanka Leader Vows Tough Line Against Troublemakers

Sri Lanka’s newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses the media representatives during his visit at the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple in Colombo on July 20, 2022. Sri Lanka’s president-elect on July 20 vowed to take tough action against anyone resorting to what he called the undemocratic means that led to his predecessor’s ouster. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

 

Sri Lanka’s president-elect vowed on Wednesday to take tough action against anyone resorting to what he called the undemocratic means that led to his predecessor’s ouster.

Six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will not bow to violence after winning a parliamentary vote to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country and resigned last week.

“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy, it is against the law,” Wickremesinghe said after praying at a Buddhist temple in the capital Colombo.

“We will deal with them firmly according to the law. We will not allow a minority of protesters to suppress the aspirations of the silent majority clamouring for a change in the political system.”

Shortly after his election, he met with elite police and army units guarding the national parliament to thank them for defending key state symbols, his office said.

The overrunning of the presidential palace earlier this month by protesters against Rajapaksa’s handling of the economy saw him flee the premises and then the country. He sent in his resignation from Singapore.

Wickremesinghe is widely seen as a proxy of the once powerful Rajapaksa family, but he denied that he was friends with them.

“I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas,” he told reporters at the Gangaramaya temple. “I am a friend of the people.”

The new leader earlier invited all political parties in parliament to join him in addressing the country’s unprecedented economic crisis that has led to severe shortages of essentials such as food, fuel, and medicines.

Six-Time PM Wickremesinghe Elected Sri Lanka President

Sri Lanka’s newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses the media representatives during his visit at the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple in Colombo on July 20, 2022. Sri Lanka’s president-elect on July 20 vowed to take tough action against anyone resorting to what he called the undemocratic means that led to his predecessor’s ouster. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

Six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected as crisis-wracked Sri Lanka’s new president in a parliamentary vote Wednesday, with the backing of the disgraced former leader’s party.

Official results gave the veteran politician 134 votes, an absolute majority in the 225-member parliament after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned in the wake of protesters overrunning his palace.

“Our divisions are now over,” Wickremesinghe said in a brief acceptance speech in parliament, urging his defeated rivals “to join me and work together to bring the country out of the crisis we are facing”.

Wickremesinghe takes charge of a bankrupt nation that is in bailout talks with the IMF, with its 22 million people enduring severe shortages of food, fuel, and medicines.

But he was backed by the Rajapaksas’ SLPP party — still, the largest in parliament — and is despised as a proxy for the former leader the protesters forced from his palace after months of demonstrations over the unprecedented economic crisis.

They have also been demanding the departure of Wickremesinghe, who on Wednesday reiterated his vow to crack down on lawbreakers.

Hundreds of heavily armed troops and police stood guard outside the parliament, but there were no signs of demonstrators.

Outside the presidential secretariat, where protesters camped for months, actress Damitha Abeyrathne, 45, said: “We lost. The whole country lost.”

“The politicians are fighting for their power. They are not fighting for the people. They have no feeling for people who are suffering.”

The struggle would continue, she told AFP.

But Wickremesinghe vowed to take tough action against anyone resorting to what he called the undemocratic means that led to his predecessor’s ouster.

“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy and we will deal with them firmly,” he said on an evening visit to a Buddhist temple.

– Law and order –

One by one, the legislators entered ballot booths set up on the floor of the chamber to choose between the three candidates.

Previous elections have been marred by allegations of corruption and vote-buying, and mobile phones were banned to prevent anyone taking photos of the ballots.

Wickremesinghe was elected for the balance of Rajapaksa’s term, which runs until November 2024, and the speaker’s office said he would be sworn in on Thursday.

According to analysts, Wickremesinghe is likely to appoint his school-mate Dinesh Gunawardena, a strong ally of the once-powerful Rajapaksa clan, as prime minister.

Wickremesinghe insisted: “I’m not a friend of the Rajapaksas, I’m a friend of the people.”

But he appears to be indebted for his victory to the four brothers who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for much of the last two decades.

Gotabaya’s departure wounded the group after two of his brothers also quit their posts as premier and finance minister earlier this year.

But former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the deposed Gotabaya’s elder brother and the head of the family, remained in the country, and party sources said he had pressed SLPP legislators to support the veteran operator.

As acting president, Wickremesinghe extended a state of emergency that gives police and security forces sweeping powers.

On Wednesday, a court ordered the protesters to vacate their camp near the Presidential Secretariat and confine themselves only to a designated area.

A top police official said anyone damaging state property would be dealt with severely. Protesters occupying a part of the president’s office have been ordered to leave or face eviction.

Opposition MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan said ahead of the vote that Wickremesinghe’s hardline stance against demonstrators had gone down well with MPs who had been at the receiving end of mob violence, describing him as the “law-and-order candidate”.

Political analyst Kusal Perera said he had “regained the acceptance of the urban middle classes by restoring some of the supplies like gas”.

Clearing government buildings of protesters also showed the 73-year-old’s “firmness”, Perera said.

– ‘Petrol and gas’ –

Wickremesinghe’s main opponent in the vote was SLPP dissident and former education minister Dullas Alahapperuma, 63, a former journalist who was supported by the opposition and received 82 votes.

The third candidate, leftist Anura Dissanayake, 53, was embarrassed when the final tally showed that the pile of rejected votes was one more than the three he polled.

But 72-year-old Zarook, a retired seaman who gave only one name and lives in Slave Island, an impoverished area of the capital, was indifferent to the result.

“If Ranil comes, if another man comes, we have to do our daily jobs. So we don’t care,” he said.

He hoped for “petrol and gas”, he told AFP, “the daily products we need”.

Ousted Leader Says He Did ‘Utmost’ For Bankrupt Sri Lanka

In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP
In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

 

Sri Lanka’s ousted president did his “utmost” to avoid an economic catastrophe but the coronavirus pandemic derailed his efforts, he said in his resignation letter read out to parliament Saturday.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brief note, sent from the safety of a safe haven in Singapore, blamed Covid-19 for the financial meltdown that triggered months of protests, culminating in his humiliating escape abroad.

“I have contributed my utmost for the country and in the future too, I will contribute for the country,” Rajapaksa said in the letter, read to MPs by parliament’s Secretary-General Dhammika Dasanayake.

It was not clear whether he was signalling an intention to remain involved in politics from exile.

“It is a matter of personal satisfaction for me that I was able to protect our people from the pandemic despite the economic crisis we were already facing,” Rajapaksa insisted.

The virus claimed more than 16,500 lives and infected over 660,000 in the nation of 22 million, where Rajapaksa refused to institute a lockdown in the initial wave and told doctors: “Don’t panic.”

One of his cabinet ministers said Sri Lanka did not require foreign vaccines and that local remedies from shamans were more than adequate.

Rajapaksa claimed Sri Lanka’s reserves were already low when he took office in November 2019 and the subsequent pandemic devastated the economy.

But critics say the government’s mismanagement was a crucial factor.

Official figures show Sri Lanka had $7.5 billion in foreign exchange reserves when he took over, dropping to just $1 million by the time he quit. The country is officially bankrupt.

Rajapaksa, 73, came to power in 2019 as a strongman leader but was forced out of his official residence a week ago when it was stormed by thousands of protesters.

Parliament is due to elect his permanent successor on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — also an object of the protesters’ scorn — was sworn in as an interim replacement.

There was no debate on Rajapaksa’s letter and the formal session ended after just 13 minutes, but political sources say horse-trading is already underway with no candidate having a guaranteed power bloc.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is a key contender and has the backing of Rajapaksa’s SLPP party, but some of its members have said they will not vote for him.

Senior SLPP dissident and former media minister Dullas Alahapperuma, 63, said he was also staking a claim, while Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa announced his candidacy on Friday night.

Former army chief Sarath Fonseka, 71, also wants to run.

Sri Lanka President Flies To Singapore From Maldives

In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP
In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

 

Sri Lanka’s president arrived in Singapore on Thursday after fleeing protests triggered by an economic crisis, with the city-state insisting he was on a private visit and had not been granted asylum.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife Ioma and their two bodyguards arrived in Singapore from the Maldives, where they had initially escaped to a day earlier.

The Saudia airline plane carrying them landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport at 7:17 pm (1117 GMT), according to AFP journalists on site.

Reporters had descended on Changi after news emerged that the president was heading to the city-state, but by late Thursday he had not been spotted leaving.

Singapore’s foreign ministry confirmed Rajapaksa had been allowed to enter the city-state but insisted it was for a “private visit”.

“He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum,” it said in a statement.

A handful of Sri Lankans were waiting in one of the airport’s arrival areas to voice their anger at Rajapaksa and the economic crisis engulfing their homeland.

“I want to scold him with all the words that I know,” said a Sri Lankan design engineer working in Singapore, who identified himself only as Max.

“He’s responsible for everything that happened in our country,” he told AFP. The city-state is home to a sizeable Sri Lankan diaspora.

But authorities were quick to warn against protests — it is illegal for even one person to stage a demonstration in tightly-controlled Singapore without prior official permission.

In a statement issued after Rajapaksa’s arrival, police urged people to “abide by our local laws. Action will be taken against anyone participating in a public assembly that is illegal”.

Rajapaksa, 73, fled Sri Lanka after protesters demonstrating against the country’s worst-ever economic crisis overran his palace on the weekend.

He is expected to look to stay in the city-state for some time, according to Sri Lankan security sources, before potentially moving to the United Arab Emirates.

Sri Lanka’s Turmoil Explained

Army personnel use tear gas to disperse demonstrators during an anti-government protest outside the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. – Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on July 13, hours after he was named as acting president, witnesses said. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

 

Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency after the crisis-hit nation’s president fled to the Maldives, with protesters also demanding the prime minister quit.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said he will resign, after months of protests against his government over the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.

– What happened to the economy? –
Sri Lanka’s vital tourism sector was first hammered by Islamist extremist bomb attacks on churches and hotels in 2019 and again the next year by the coronavirus pandemic.

Its coffers further depleted by government tax cuts, Sri Lanka ran out of foreign currency needed to import everything from medicines to food and fuel.

Even with help from India and others, the country defaulted in April on its $51 billion foreign debt pile and has been in bailout talks for months with the International Monetary Fund.

 

Army personnel use tear gas to disperse demonstrators during an anti-government protest outside the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. – Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on July 13, hours after he was named as acting president, witnesses said. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

– How has this affected ordinary people? –
Sri Lankans have endured months of medicine and food shortages and electricity blackouts while fuel stations have run out of petrol and diesel despite pleas to Russia and others for discounted oil.

Unofficial inflation rates are second only to those of Zimbabwe, making many goods — if they can be found — too expensive for many people to afford.

The United Nations has warned that Sri Lanka is facing a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions already in need of aid.

More than three-quarters of the population had reduced their food intake due to the country’s severe food shortages, the UN says.

 

Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest outside the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. – Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on July 13, hours after he was named as acting president, witnesses said. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

– Who are the Rajapaksas? –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, head of state since 2019, is just one member of a clan that has dominated politics in the South Asian nation of 22 million people for years.

Brother Mahinda, 76, was president for a decade until 2015 and oversaw the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war in 2009 when Gotabaya — dubbed “The Terminator” — ran the security services.

Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka moved closer to China and borrowed billions of dollars for vanity projects like cricket stadiums and airports as well as a deep-sea port since leased to Beijing.

 

Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest outside the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. – Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on July 13, hours after he was named as acting president, witnesses said. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

 

– How did the Rajapaksas respond to the crisis? –
After months of protests, Rajapaksa loyalists went on the rampage in May. At least nine people were killed in nationwide violence while the homes of ruling party members were torched.

Mahinda quit as prime minister — escorted by security forces from his residence — but Gotabaya clung on and replaced him with veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73.

Wickremesinghe has little to show for his efforts and his home was set ablaze last week by protesters — he was absent — even as he offered to resign.

President Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday for the Maldives.

 

 

Demonstrators take part in an anti-government protest outside the office of Sri Lanka’s prime minister in Colombo on July 13, 2022. – Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed into Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on July 13, hours after he was named as acting president, witnesses said. (Photo by – / AFP)

 

– What now? –
The speaker of parliament earlier said that Gotabaya — whose presidential palace remains occupied by protesters — would formally resign on Wednesday to ensure a “peaceful transition”.

But with no formal announcement of his exit, thousands of demonstrators mobbed the office of Wickremesinghe demanding his exit too.

Rajapaksa on Wednesday named Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence.

A successor must be chosen through a vote in parliament within a month of Rajapaksa stepping down, but the speaker has promised a new leader within a week.

However, it is unclear who if anyone would be able to garner enough support among lawmakers to succeed Rajapaksa.

Protesters Storm Sri Lanka PM’s Office After President Flees Abroad

Protesters gather in a street leading to the president’s official residence, against Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa while demanding his resignation, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 09, 2022.Photo by Pradeep Dambarage/AFP)

 

Protesters in Sri Lanka defied tear gas, water cannon and a state of emergency to storm the prime minister’s office on Wednesday after the president fled overseas, with the crowd demanding both men step down in the face of an economic crisis.

In a televised statement Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he had instructed the military and police to do “what is necessary to restore order”.

But footage showed armed security personnel standing by in the grounds of his office as protesters, some holding national flags, milled and took pictures.

Other demonstrators at one point broke into state television studios, as the country’s months-long political and economic crisis appeared to be moving towards a climax.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised at the weekend to resign on Wednesday after escaping his own official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it.

As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is believed to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained. The 73-year-old, his wife and two bodyguards took a military aircraft to the neighbouring Maldives, immigration sources told AFP.

Hours later, with no formal announcement he was stepping down, thousands of demonstrators mobbed the office of Wickremesinghe — whom Rajapaksa named as acting president during his absence — demanding both officeholders should go.

“Go home Ranil, Go home Gota,” they shouted.

Tear gas and water cannon fired by police and the declaration of both a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew failed to disperse them and the crowd poured into the building.

Wickremesinghe, also 73, would automatically become acting president if Rajapaksa steps down, but has himself announced his willingness to resign if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.

“We can’t tear up our constitution,” he said in his statement. “We can’t allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” he said, adding that the official buildings occupied by protesters must be returned to state control.

The protesters’ actions were a repeat of the capture of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home and office on Saturday, when Wickremesinghe’s private home was also set ablaze.

The prime minister’s office confirmed that Rajapaksa had left the country, but said it had no schedule for any presidential resignation announcement.

The succession process could take between three days — the minimum time needed for parliament to elect an MP to serve out Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024 — and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute.

 A complicated exit

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country ran out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for its 22 million people.

Earlier Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans again thronged the corridors of the president’s official residence after his departure, with young couples walking around hand in hand in a mood of quiet celebration.

“People are very happy, because these people robbed our country,” said retired civil servant Kingsley Samarakoon, 74.

“They’ve stolen too much money, billions and billions.”

But he held little hope for an immediate improvement in Sri Lanka’s plight.

“How are people going to run the country without money?” he asked. “It’s a problem.”

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.

The departure of Rajapaksa, 73 and once known as “The Terminator”, had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating standoff with immigration personnel in Colombo.

He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.

On arrival in the Maldives on Wednesday, Rajapaksa was driven to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in the capital Male said.

His youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai on Tuesday after a tense standoff of his own with airport staff.

The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, has said he will stand for the presidency.

Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.

 

Sri Lanka Declares State Of Emergency As President Flees To Maldives

A man waves Sri Lanka’s national flag outside the presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 13, 2022. Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP

 

Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency Wednesday as thousands of people mobbed the prime minister’s office after the country’s president flew to the Maldives, following months of widespread protests against an economic crisis.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised at the weekend to resign on Wednesday and clear the way for a “peaceful transition of power” after fleeing his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it.

As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is believed to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.

He, his wife, and two bodyguards were the four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military aircraft that took off from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, immigration sources told AFP.

Hours later, with no formal announcement he was stepping down, thousands of demonstrators mobbed the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — who would automatically become acting president in the event of a resignation — demanding both officeholders should go.

“Go home Ranil, Go home Gota,” they shouted.

Police fired tear gas to hold them back from overrunning the compound and officials declared a nationwide state of emergency “to deal with the situation in the country”, the prime minister’s spokesman Dinouk Colombage told AFP.

Police imposed an indefinite curfew across the Western Province, which includes Colombo, “to contain the situation”, a senior police officer said.

Wickremesinghe has himself announced his willingness to resign if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.

His office confirmed Wednesday that Rajapaksa had left the country, but said it had no schedule for any resignation announcement.

The presidential succession process could take between three days — the minimum time needed for parliament to elect an MP to serve out Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024 — and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute.

A Complicated Exit

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for its 22 million people.

Earlier Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans again thronged the corridors of the president’s official residence after his departure, with young couples walking around hand in hand in a mood of quiet celebration.

In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP
In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

“People are very happy because these people robbed our country,” said retired civil servant Kingsley Samarakoon, 74. “They’ve stolen too much money, billions and billions.”

But he held little hope for an immediate improvement in Sri Lanka’s plight. “How are people going to run the country without money?” he asked. “It’s a problem.”

The departure of Rajapaksa, 73 and once known as “The Terminator”, had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating stand-off with immigration personnel in Colombo.

He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.

The presidential party was reluctant to go through regular channels, fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result, missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.

Clearance for a military flight to land in nearby India was not immediately secured, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed to a naval base with a view to fleeing by sea.

On arrival in the Maldives, his party was driven to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in the capital Male said.

Rajapaksa’s youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a tense standoff of his own with the airport staff.

Basil — who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan — tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but the airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast-track service.

The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, has said he will stand for the position.

Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51-billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.

Sri Lanka President Flees His Country On A Military Aircraft

In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP
In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo. Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

Sri Lanka’s embattled president flew out of his country early Wednesday, in a probable prelude to his resignation after months of widespread protests over the island nation’s worst-ever economic crisis.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised at the weekend to resign on Wednesday and clear the way for a “peaceful transition of power”, after fleeing his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it.

As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is believed to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.

He, his wife and a bodyguard were among four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military aircraft which took off from the main international airport heading for the neighbouring Maldives, according to immigration sources.

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“Their passports were stamped and they boarded the special air force flight,” an immigration official involved in the process told AFP.

The departure of the 73-year-old leader once known as ‘The Terminator’ had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating stand-off with immigration personnel at the airport.

He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.

The presidential party were reluctant to go through regular channels fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.

Clearance for a military flight to land in the closest neighbour India was not immediately secured, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed to a naval base with a view to fleeing by sea.

Rajapaksa’s youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a tense standoff of his own with airport staff.

Basil — who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan nationality — tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast track service.

Unity government

Basil had to obtain a new US passport after leaving his behind at the presidential palace when the Rajapaksas beat a hasty retreat to avoid mobs on Saturday, a diplomatic source said.

Official sources said a suitcase full of documents had also been left behind at the stately mansion along with 17.85 million rupees (about $50,000) in cash, now in the custody of a Colombo court.

There was no official word from the president’s office about his whereabouts, but he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for the 22 million population.

If he steps down as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP to serve out the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

But Wickremesinghe has himself announced his willingness to step down if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.

The succession process could take between three days — the minimum time taken to convene parliament — and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute. If Rajapaksa does step down on Wednesday, the vote would take place on July 20, the parliamentary speaker has said.

The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, has said he will stand for the position.

Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51-billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.

AFP

Sri Lanka’s President To Resign After Being Chased From Home

Protestors demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gather inside the compound of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace in Colombo on July 9, 2022. (Photo by AFP)
Protestors demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gather inside the compound of Sri Lanka’s Presidential Palace in Colombo on July 9, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

 

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his resignation on Saturday, hours after a crowd of angry protesters chased him from his residence, as months of frustration brought on by an unprecedented economic crisis boiled over.

Hundreds of thousands of people massed in the capital Colombo to demand the government take responsibility for mismanaging the nation’s finances, and for crippling food and fuel shortages.

After storming the gates of the presidential palace, a throng of protesters walked through its rooms, with some among the boisterous crowd jumping into the compound’s pool.

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Others were seen laughing and lounging in the stately bedrooms of the residence, with one pulling out what he claimed was a pair of Rajapaksa’s underwear.

At around the same time, the leader had boarded a naval craft at the Colombo port and was taken to the island’s southern waters, where he let it be known he was finally bowing to months of calls for his resignation.

“To ensure a peaceful transition, the president said he will step down on July 13,” parliamentary speaker Mahinda Abeywardana said in a televised statement.

Rajapaksa had to be extracted from his residence by troops who fired into the air to keep the crowd outside at bay.

Soon after they stormed the presidential palace, Rajapaksa’s nearby seafront office also fell into the hands of protesters.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the first person in line to succeed Rajapaksa, called a meeting with political leaders and said he was willing to step down to pave the way for a unity government.

But that failed to placate protesters, who stormed the premier’s private residence and set it alight after night fell.

Footage shared on social media showed a crowd cheering the blaze, which broke out shortly after a security detachment guarding Wickremesinghe attacked several journalists outside the home.

No casualties have been reported in the fire so far, and police said Wickremesinghe and his family were away at the time.

Security forces attempted to disperse the huge crowds that had mobbed Colombo’s administrative district earlier in the day, with dozens injured in the resulting clashes.

A spokeswoman for Colombo’s main hospital said three people were being treated for gunshot wounds, along with 36 others suffering breathing difficulties after being caught up in tear gas barrages.

‘Not a deterrent’

Sri Lanka has suffered through months of shortages of basic goods, lengthy blackouts and galloping inflation after running out of foreign currency to import necessities.

The government has defaulted on its $51 billion external debt and is seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.

Thousands of people had poured into the capital for Saturday’s demonstration, the latest outbreak of unrest sparked by the crisis.

Police had withdrawn a curfew issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.

Thousands of anti-government protesters ignored the stay-home order and even forced railway authorities to operate trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday’s rally, officials said.

“The curfew was not a deterrent. In fact, it encouraged more people to get on the streets in defiance,” the defence official said.

Sri Lanka has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol, and people unable to travel to the capital held protests in other cities across the island.

Demonstrators had already maintained a months-long protest camp outside Rajapaksa’s office demanding his resignation.

The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters gathered there.

Nine people were killed and hundreds were wounded after the violence sparked reprisals against pro-government mobs and arson attacks on the homes of lawmakers.

Cricket goes on

The unrest comes at the tail end of Australia’s ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with Pakistan’s squad also on the island for their upcoming series.

Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.

“The Australian Test is coming to an end and we are due to start the Pakistan series,” a cricket board official told AFP.

“There is no opposition to having the games. In fact, fans are supportive and we have no reason to reschedule.”

 

AFP

Sri Lanka Leader Flees As Protesters Storm Home, Office

Protesters gather in a street leading to the president’s official residence, against Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa while demanding his resignation, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 09, 2022. (Photo by Pradeep Dambarage/AFP)

 

 

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence on Saturday shortly before protesters, angered by an unprecedented economic crisis, overran the compound and stormed his nearby office.

Thousands of people had surrounded the leader’s home to demand his resignation, blaming government mismanagement for a downturn that has subjected the island nation’s 22 million people to months of bitter hardship.

As the crowd surged at the gates of the presidential palace, troops guarding the compound fired in the air to hold them back until Rajapaksa was safely removed.

“The president was escorted to safety,” a top defence source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He is still the president, he is being protected by a military unit.”

Footage broadcast live on social media showed hundreds of people walking through the palace, with some among the boisterous crowd jumping into the compound’s pool for a swim.

Others were seen laughing and lounging in the stately bedrooms of the residence.

The colonial-era state mansion is one of Sri Lanka’s key symbols of state power and officials said Rajapaksa’s departure raised questions as to whether he intended to remain in office.

“We are awaiting instructions,” a top civil servant told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we know he is with the Sri Lanka navy and is safe.”

Private broadcasters showed what appeared to be a vehicle convoy belonging to the president at Sri Lanka’s main international airport, but there was no confirmation on whether he had left the island.

Soon after the crowd stormed the presidential palace, Rajapaksa’s nearby office also fell into the hands of protesters.

Security forces attempted to disperse the huge crowds that had mobbed Colombo’s administrative district.

Three people were hospitalised after being shot along with 36 others who suffered breathing difficulties following intense tear gas barrages, a spokeswoman for the main hospital in Colombo said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who would assume the presidency in the event of Rajapaksa’s resignation, has called an urgent cabinet meeting to discuss a “swift resolution” to the political crisis.

 

 

– ‘Not a deterrent’ –
Sri Lanka has suffered through months of food and fuel shortages, lengthy blackouts and galloping inflation after running out of foreign currency to import vital goods.

Thousands of people had poured into the capital for Saturday’s demonstration, the latest outbreak of unrest sparked by the crisis.

Police had withdrawn a curfew issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.

Thousands of anti-government protesters ignored the stay-home order and even forced railway authorities to operate trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday’s rally, officials said.

“The curfew was not a deterrent, in fact it encouraged more people to get on the streets in defiance,” the defence official said.

“Passengers had commandeered trains to reach Colombo.”

The country has nearly exhausted already scarce supplies of petrol, but protesters backed by the main opposition parties hired private buses to travel to the capital.

Demonstrators had for months been camped outside Rajapaksa’s seafront office to demand his resignation over the government’s mismanagement of the crisis.

Soldiers armed with assault rifles were bussed into Colombo on Friday to reinforce police guarding Rajapaksa’s official residence.

Authorities said they had deployed nearly 20,000 troops and police officers for a security operation to protect the president.

Sri Lanka has defaulted on its $51 billion external debt and has been in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Nine people were killed and hundreds wounded when clashes erupted across the country after Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters outside the president’s office in May.