Sri Lanka’s president flees to Maldives as PM declares state of emergency

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on a military plane bound for the Maldives, according to the country’s air force, leaving behind a deepening economic and political crisis in the island nation the day he had to resign in the face of mass protests.

The 73-year-old leader was forced to resign on Saturday by a street riot in which tens of thousands of protesters angered by rising prices and fuel and food shortages converged on Colombo, the commercial capital , and overthrew the presidential election. palace.

“At the request of the government and under the powers available to the president under the constitution, with the full approval of the ministry of defense, the president, his wife and two security officials received an aircraft from the Sri Lankan Air Force to depart Katunayake International Airport for the Maldives in the early hours of July 13,” the Air Force said Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday night, Rajapaksa and his younger brother Basil Rajapaksa, a former finance minister, were prevented by immigration officials from boarding commercial flights. “I can confirm to you that he left last night,” a senior immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Financial Times. “All immigration formalities have been completed.”

The official said Rajapaksa’s brother remained in the country. He added: “We have no power to prevent the president from leaving, as the media has claimed.”

In an address shortly after 1 p.m., Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament, said Rajapaksa had appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, as interim speaker in his place.

Police use tear gas as protesters storm the compound of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office in Colombo on Wednesday © Rafiq Maqbool/AP

According to the constitution of Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister is the next to succeed the President if he resigns. However, early Wednesday afternoon, Rajapaksa had not officially resigned.

Wickremesinghe is himself the target of protesters’ anger and has previously said he will step down once a new unity government is in place.

In an address to the nation, he said he had ordered military commanders and the Sri Lankan police chief “to do what is necessary to restore order”, and that the president’s office and other occupied buildings by protesters “must be returned to proper custody”. .

“We cannot tear up our constitution. We cannot allow fascists to take over,” Wickremesinghe said. “Some mainstream politicians also seem to support these extremists. That’s why I declared a national emergency and a curfew.

Wickremesinghe on Wednesday morning declared a national state of emergency and a curfew in Western Province, the most populous subdivision that includes Colombo.

Meanwhile, thousands of protesters gathered around the prime minister’s office and demanded he step down, chanting “Go home Ranil”. Last weekend, protesters set fire to Wickremesinghe’s house.

The fall of Rajapaksa marks the end of one of Asia’s most powerful political dynasties, which many Sri Lankans credit with winning a long and brutal war against Tamil separatists in the north of the country.

However, they now blame him for borrowing heavily to build China-backed Belt and Road spending projects and for a series of failing economic policies that caused Sri Lanka to default on its debt in May. .

News that Rajapaksa had fled was met with jubilation by protesters occupying the palace, who had daubed its walls with graffiti including the slogan “Gota, go home”.

“I am happy that he is gone, both as a citizen of this country and as an activist,” said Nirmani Liyanage of Citizens’ Forum, a civic group belonging to the Aragalaya (Struggle) movement which is calling for the resignation. of Rajapaksa since April.

She said it was an important development for Aragalaya in her quest for “accountability, transparency and participatory democracy” in Sri Lanka.

The flight of Sri Lanka’s president leaves a power vacuum at a time when the country must form a new government and secure an IMF financing facility. The deal would unlock funding for emergency loans that would allow it to import essential goods and advance talks to restructure its debt.

After Rajapaksa promised to step down, opposition parties began talks on forming a new government, a necessary step to secure an IMF program.

Sri Lanka’s debt stands at $51 billion, just over half of which is owed to bilateral and multilateral lenders led by China.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, more than 6 million people out of a population of 22 million are “food insecure”, which means that they do not consume enough calories to lead healthy and productive lives.

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