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Sri Lanka president finally resigns after fleeing to a second country

Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard near the Parliament in Colombo on July 14. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned Thursday from his sudden exile in Singapore, a day after fleeing the country he led for nearly three years. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena officially announced the resignation Friday.

Forced out by a civilian uprising over the island nation’s economic collapse, the 73-year-old Rajapaksa had left Sri Lanka before dawn Wednesday to escape public fury over an economy in free fall. He kept his country on tenterhooks even as he was on the run, first flying to Maldives and then missing his self-declared deadline for stepping down.

The delay helped him escape while he still enjoyed presidential immunity, but his maneuver sparked fresh protests in which one person died. His ouster now sets off a full leadership struggle.

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned July 14 following months of protests over the island nation’s economic collapse. (Video: Reuters)

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is serving as acting president, will continue in the position, the speaker said. Parliament will convene Saturday and select a new president within a week. Abeywardena asked that the public maintain peace and allow lawmakers to carry out democratic processes.

Rajapaksa’s much-anticipated resignation was overshadowed by the ongoing political chaos and a week of turbulence.

Finally we win!” wrote one social-media user on Twitter. Another noted that the most feared man in the country was now homeless. “Reduced to nothing,” the person wrote in a tweet.

On the majestic steps of the presidential office overlooking the Indian Ocean, where protesters have camped out since Saturday, some said the movement was about overhauling the political system and that changing a leader was not enough. Their next target is Wickremesinghe, who many feel represents the same system.

Rajapaksa’s exit brings a sordid end to the storied Rajapaksa dynasty that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades. Many hold the Rajapaksa family, which until recently also held the positions of prime minister and finance minister, responsible for the economic mismanagement that has brought the country to economic collapse.

The crisis has left Sri Lanka unable to repay its foreign debt and with little money to import much-needed fuel and food. Fuel is in dangerously short supply and prices for essential items like rice have doubled from a year ago.

The deposed president was allowed into Singapore on a private visit, a spokesperson for Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a Thursday statement.

“He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum,” the statement said. It is unclear whether Rajapaksa will stay in Singapore for an extended period or move to another country soon.

As the country waited for Rajapaksa’s resignation on Thursday, demonstrators withdrew from three major government buildings they had been occupying. Clashes with security forces left dozens injured, including a police officer and a soldier. The military barricaded the road leading to Parliament, one of the few political landmarks that protesters had not seized.

The leadership turmoil in the country threatens to pull the island nation deeper into a political abyss and risks further delay for a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Protesters and opposition leaders have criticized Wickremesinghe’s role as acting president, further complicating his challenge to take charge.

Inside the collapse of the Rajapaksa dynasty in Sri Lanka

The protesters’ surprise decision to withdraw from those buildings, including the residences of the president and the prime minister, was seen as an attempt to dial down rising tensions. They said they would remain in the presidential office to symbolize what they call a people’s movement.

At the colonial-era presidential residence, police locked the main building’s large white doors as some of the interlopers scrambled for a final selfie. Oshantha Dabare said protesters were leaving voluntarily. “Our objective of deposing the president has been achieved. We are leaving in strength,” he said.

Even as the site was cleared of protest paraphernalia, a bright-yellow banner spread across a roof declared “Chase out the government. Save the system.”

The protesters have vowed to continue pushing for political change. Their demands include an interim government that will investigate allegations of corruption levied against Rajapaksa and his powerful family, as well as assistance with acquiring food and cooking gas.

“There was an attempt to paint us as violent yesterday,” said Swasthika Arulingam, a lawyer who has been involved with the protest since it began. “We are a nonviolent movement.”

The public’s loss of faith in their political leaders has left officials shaken. Sri Lanka’s top uniformed official, Gen. Shavendra Silva Sr., asked citizens during a Wednesday night news conference to maintain order. He was flanked by the chiefs of the army, navy and air force.

“We call on all the people and the youth to be peaceful during this period until a new president is appointed,” he said.

Financial experts say an agreement with the IMF, which is essential for economic recovery, can only be formalized when there is stable political leadership. The negotiations have been disrupted by the recent turmoil.

Manjuka Fernandopulle, a lawyer specializing in debt restructuring, said bondholders are “looking for a partner that believes in continuity, has credibility, legitimacy and confidence reposed in them by the people.”