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

  • President Rajapaksa leaks hours before his expected resignation
  • Protesters demand ousting of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
  • Wickremesinghe declares emergency, returns soon after

COLOMBO, July 13 (Reuters) – Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on Wednesday, seemingly ending his family’s nearly two-decade rule of the country after a massive popular uprising sparked by an economic collapse .

But his decision to leave his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in charge as caretaker president sparked further protests, with protesters storming the prime minister’s office demanding that he also leave.

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

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Police stationed outside the prime minister’s office fired several tear gas canisters and a military helicopter briefly circled overhead, but protesters appeared undeterred and eventually burst into the compound. Wickremesinghe’s team declined to reveal his whereabouts.

“It’s quite wonderful, people tried to take this place for about three hours,” said Sanchuka Kavinda, 25, a university student, standing next to an open and mangled door to the prime minister’s office. . “No matter what, everyone in this crowd will be here until Ranil quits as well.”

In a statement, Wickremesinghe said protesters “have no reason to storm the prime minister’s office.”

“They want to stop the parliamentary process. But we have to respect the Constitution. So the security forces advised me to impose an emergency and a curfew. I’m working to do that.”

On the ground floor of the two-story whitewashed colonial-era building, dozens of protesters gathered to sing Sinhalese pop songs. In a nearby air-conditioned room sat a large group of security personnel armed with assault rifles.

Protest organizers and security personnel occupied a central wooden staircase at the heart of the building, guiding tourists to and from the upper floor where the Prime Minister’s bedroom is located.

In an adjoining top-floor room, where Reuters interviewed Wickremesinghe a few weeks ago, the plush furniture had been hastily pushed into the corners and a line of armed security personnel ushered visitors through.

Sri Lanka has been ruled by the powerful Rajapaksa family for most of the past two decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected the country’s president in November 2019.

NEW LEADER AS OF NEXT WEEK

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

An attempt by Wickremesinghe to hang on would infuriate 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.

“An MP with one seat is appointed as Prime Minister. Now the same person is appointed as Acting President,” opposition presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa said on Twitter. “It’s Rajapaksa style of democracy. What a farce. What a tragedy.”

The president, his wife and two bodyguards left the main international airport near Colombo on an air force plane early Wednesday, the air force said in a statement.

Speaker of parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said Rajapaksa phoned him and told him his resignation letter would arrive later on Wednesday.

A government source and a person close to Rajapaksa said he was in Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The president will most likely travel to another Asian country from there, the government source said.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Protests over the economic crisis have simmered for months and came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands took over key government buildings in Colombo, blaming the Rajapaksas and their allies for runaway inflation , shortages and corruption. Read more

Government sources and aides said the president’s brothers, former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, were still in Sri Lanka.

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

Amid economic and political chaos, Sri Lankan sovereign bond prices hit new record highs on Wednesday.

The United States Embassy in Colombo, which is in the city’s central district, announced that it was canceling consular services for the afternoon and for Thursday as a precautionary measure.

The island nation’s tourism-dependent economy was first hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by a drop in remittances from overseas Sri Lankans. A ban on chemical fertilizers hit production, although the ban was later reversed. Read more

The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that hurt public finances, while dwindling foreign exchange reserves reduced imports of fuel, food and medicine.

Gasoline was severely rationed and long queues formed outside shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned it could hit 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 hid in a military base in the east of the country for a few days before returning to Colombo.

On Tuesday, Sri Lankan immigration officials prevented Basil Rajapaksa, who resigned as finance minister in April, from leaving the country by plane. Read more

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Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh and Alasdair Pal; Written by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Krishna N. Das; Editing by Sam Holmes, Shri Navaratnam and Kim Coghill

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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