Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa departed the country on Wednesday, hours before he was set to stand down, following a people’s rebellion over the island nation’s severe economic crisis shattered his family’s tight grip on the island nation.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe proclaimed a state of emergency after hundreds of people surrounded his office in Colombo, jumping the gates and attempting to penetrate the premises past police in riot gear. A military chopper circled overhead as police fired several rounds of tear gas.
“As acting president, the prime minister has proclaimed a state of emergency (around the country) and enforced a curfew in the western province,” Wickremesinghe’s media secretary, Dinouk Colombage, told Reuters. Colombo is in the Western Province.
As word of the president’s escape circulated, thousands of people gathered at Colombo’s main protest site, screaming “Gota thief, Gota thief,” a nickname for him.
The flight of the president effectively ends the control of the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty, which has dominated politics in the South Asian country for the last two decades.
Protests against the economic crisis had been simmering for months before hundreds of thousands of people took over key government facilities in Colombo this weekend, accusing the Rajapaksas and their allies for rampant inflation, corruption, and a serious lack of fuel and medicines.
According to government sources and advisers, the president’s brothers, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, are still in the country.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife, and two bodyguards boarded a Sri Lankan Air Force plane early on Wednesday, according to a statement from the air force.
According to a government source and a person close to Rajapaksa, he is in Male, the Maldives’ capital. According to a government source, the president would most likely travel to another Asian country from there.
After protestors stormed his and the prime minister’s official houses, Rajapaksa was set to resign down as president on Wednesday to pave way for a unity administration.
The speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, told Reuters partner ANI that he had not received any communication from Rajapaksa. According to a ruling party source, the president will submit his letter of resignation later on Wednesday.
Wickremesinghe would be the interim president, however he has also volunteered to retire. If he does, the speaker will serve as acting president until a new president is elected, as the constitution requires.
Protest leaders, on the other hand, claim the prime minister is an ally of the Rajapaksas and have threatened a “decisive fight” if he does not resign by Wednesday afternoon.
“If we don’t hear about the president’s and prime minister’s resignations by the evening,” said Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne, one of the protest organisers.
“We vehemently oppose the Gota-Ranil government. Both must be removed.”
In the midst of economic and political turmoil, Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond prices hit new lows on Wednesday.
As a precaution, the US Embassy in Colombo, which is located in the city’s central business sector, has cancelled consular services for the afternoon and Thursday.