The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Disgraced Sri Lankan president flees in predawn hours before resignation

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, seen here after addressing Parliament in 2020, fled his country early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday, only hours before his expected resignation after less than three years in office.

Rajapaksa, his wife and two security guards flew out of the country aboard a Sri Lankan air force plane from the civilian airport outside the capital, according to Group Capt. Dushan Wijesinghe, a spokesman for the air force. The request was made by the Defense Ministry, he said, and the plane was headed to Male, the capital of the Maldives.

The president’s brother Basil Rajapaksa, a former Sri Lankan finance minister, was blocked at the international airport outside of Colombo on Tuesday as he also tried to flee, two people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

Basil Rajapaksa arrived at the airport in a black van to try to board Emirates Flight 649 to Dubai, according to an airport official, who confirmed an eyewitness account and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation. The flight was set to depart shortly after 3 a.m.

The former minister, who was not accompanied by his family, tried to enter through a VIP entrance but was blocked by security workers who told him he did not qualify, the people familiar with the incident said. He then went to a commercial fast-track entrance called the “Silk Route,” where immigration officials declined to authorize his departure. Bloomberg News first reported that Basil Rajapaksa was stopped from leaving.

The incident reflected the national mood against the disgraced Rajapaksa family.

Basil Rajapaksa was forced to step down as finance minister in April as anti-government protests over economic despair gathered momentum. Those tensions finally erupted last weekend because of a total collapse of the country’s economy amid extreme fuel and food shortages.

With the president’s resignation deadline approaching, the Rajapaksa family seemed to be scrambling to quickly leave the country. A petition seeking a travel ban on Basil Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, who stepped down as prime minister in May, cites their “arbitrary and unreasonable acts or omissions” that brought about the economic crisis.

What to know about the upheaval in Sri Lanka

On Saturday, protesters stormed the president’s residence, cooking in his kitchens, leaping into the swimming pool and jumping on his bed. He had moved out the day before and reiterated on Monday that he would resign effective Wednesday.

There had been intense speculation since then about his whereabouts. Rumors that he left the country spread after the Parliament speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, said in an interview with the BBC that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had departed but intended to return for his official resignation. Abeywardena later retracted his claim in speaking to another news outlet.

The Hindu newspaper reported Tuesday that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request for a U.S. visa was rejected recently. A State Department spokesperson said the agency could not comment because visa records are confidential.

Many Sri Lankans see his decision to not resign immediately as a way of buying time to leave the country safely.

Rajapaksa, formerly a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, gave up his American citizenship ahead of the 2019 elections because of a law that prevented foreign nationals from running for president. He won the election with a significant majority but became arguably the country’s most unpopular leader midterm as the economy melted down.

“This was a failed president and a failed government,” said Faiszer Musthapha, a member of an opposition party that previously allied with Rajapaksa. The country now needs political stability to turn the economy around, he added. “All parties have to shed their political differences and start working towards taking this country out of the mess the Rajapaksas put us all in.”

The streets in Colombo remained quiet on Tuesday. People continued to flock to the president’s compound. There, loudspeakers blared songs, and impassioned protesters made speeches hailing the victory of the people’s movement.

Those demonstrators issued an ultimatum, saying they would again take to the streets if Rajapaksa didn’t carry through on his promise and resign by 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Signs of the crisis are visible everywhere. Fuel lines stretch for blocks. In one location late Tuesday, some drivers were asleep in their vehicles to keep their places in line.

Udaran Nanayakkara, a driver for a taxi service, said the public was waiting for an answer from the president. “When he resigns, he will go to jail for corruption,” Nanayakkara said. “So he wants to leave. But he has to give back our dollars.”

Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article mentioned a petition seeking a travel ban on Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The travel ban is sought on former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, who stepped down as prime minister in May. This version has been corrected.

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