Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Flees Country on Military Aircraft

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Flees Country on Military Aircraft

Sri Lankan President

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

fled the country on a military aircraft in the early hours of Wednesday morning, an immigration official said, the same day he was due to formally resign following mass protests over the country’s economic crisis that led to a storming and occupation of his residence in the country’s capital, Colombo.

The flight departed from the main international airport in Colombo and was headed for the Maldives, said the official. Mr. Rajapaksa traveled with his wife and two security personnel, the official said, in a dramatic departure that is set to deepen turmoil in the small, island nation. The official said there were no legal grounds to deny his immigration clearance.

“At the moment of leaving, he was still the president,” the official said.

Sri Lanka’s financial and political crisis could foreshadow the tumult that awaits other debt-laden countries that are similarly vulnerable to the confluence of food shortages, inflation and rising U.S. interest rates. As currencies have weakened, it has been harder for many countries to both service debt and pay for more costly imports, in some cases triggering a downgrade of sovereign debt. That can bring countries closer to a default, as options for borrowing recede.

People visit Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo on Tuesday, days after it was overrun by protesters.


arun sankar/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

As crowds stormed the president’s offices and residence amid anger over energy and food shortages that worsened in recent weeks, Mr. Rajapaksa has been out of public view. He had remained silent since the parliament speaker said on Saturday that the president had informed him of his intention to resign on July 13, and his absence sparked intense speculation among the Sri Lankan public that the president was seeking to depart the nation.

The country’s economic crisis has intensified accusations of nepotism and corruption from protesters and political opponents, which he denies; upon stepping down, Mr. Rajapaksa would no longer enjoy immunity from prosecution.

The speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a Rajapaksa ally who has served as a conduit for communications from the president in recent days, on Sunday told the BBC that the president had left the country for a short visit. But on Monday, in a subsequent interview with The Wall Street Journal, he said he had been mistaken, and that while a signed letter from the president would suffice for a resignation, he expected Mr. Rajapaksa to be in Colombo on Wednesday, the day of his resignation.

On July 9, demonstrators breached light security and occupied the president’s official residence, taking a dip in the compound’s swimming pool, watching protest coverage on TV and taking selfies. Protesters also broke into the residence of Prime Minister

Ranil Wickremesinghe,

who publicly committed the same day to resigning to make way for an interim all-party government.

Protesters continued to occupy the president’s palace in Sri Lanka, enjoying the compound’s pool and working out in the gym. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to step down after his residence was stormed on Saturday. Photo: Chamila Karunarathne/ EPA-EFE via Shutterstock

The economic pain of recent months, which saw Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves drain to near zero, hitting at the country’s ability to import fuel and medicine, has steadily chipped away at the Rajapaksa family’s grip on power.

Mahinda Rajapaksa,

the president’s brother who was serving as prime minister, resigned in May, the month the country defaulted on its sovereign debt. The news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s departure could spark renewed unrest.

The World Bank has cut its forecast for growth in developing economies to 3.4% this year from 4.6% previously, citing the effects of spiraling prices for food and energy and rapidly rising borrowing costs.

Countries including Zambia, Lebanon and Pakistan are already in the grip of economic crisis, and in international talks to restructure debt or secure loans. In Laos, where a shortage of dollars is squeezing essential imports, inflation hit an annual rate of 24% in June. Pakistan’s new government, which came to power in April, says that it narrowly averted a debt default in recent weeks, driven by a soaring fuel-import bill.

Many countries in financial distress share another common link—a large amount of borrowing from China in recent years toward giant infrastructure projects, which could complicate efforts to secure bailouts via the International Monetary Fund. China, a close ally, provided Islamabad, which like Sri Lanka is in talks with the IMF for financial relief, a $2.3 billion loan in June to shore up its foreign-currency reserves.

In Sri Lanka’s case, the coronavirus pandemic decimated its tourism earnings, which compounded a precarious financial position that stemmed from its accumulation of debt on infrastructure spending and sweeping tax cuts that drained government revenue, as well as a ban on chemical fertilizers that shrank crop output.

Barriers blocked an entrance to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Colombo Tuesday.


-/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Early Tuesday,

Basil Rajapaksa,

the former finance minister and another brother of President Rajapaksa, had also attempted to leave Sri Lanka but was thwarted by airport staff, as the country waited to see whether the president would follow through on a commitment to resign on Wednesday.

Basil Rajapaksa sought to board an Emirates flight to Washington, D.C., via Dubai, in the early hours of Tuesday through a VIP departure lounge at Colombo’s main international airport, immigration officials said. But in a show of how far public sentiment has soured against the Rajapaksa family over the dire state of the country’s economy, staff at the lounge walked off the job, leaving the former minister unable to clear immigration, immigration officials said. Basil Rajapaksa didn’t respond to requests for comment, and his current whereabouts is unclear.

The Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Officers Association said it had stopped operating the lounge over safety considerations given the current instability in the country “and the strong possibility of a large number of accused former political VIPs” using it to leave the country. It said the lounge would remain closed for the foreseeable future.

Anticorruption group Transparency International Sri Lanka and three others had filed a motion on Monday asking the court to restrict Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa, as well as the former central bank governor, from traveling overseas.

Write to Philip Wen at [email protected]

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