COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, days after protesters stormed his home and office as well as the official residence of his prime minister amid an economic crisis in three months which caused severe shortages of food and fuel.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives, according to an official. Immigration who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Rajapaksa had agreed to step down under pressure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he will leave once a new government is in place.
Lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled on Tuesday to decide on the composition of a new government to pull the bankrupt country out of economic and political meltdown.
The promised resignations did not end the crisis and the protesters vowed to occupy official buildings until the main leaders left. For days, people have been flocking to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swim in the pool, marvel at the paintings, and lounge on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point they also burned down the Prime Minister’s private house.
While lawmakers agreed late Monday to elect a new president from their ranks on July 20, they have yet to decide who will take over as prime minister and fill the cabinet.
The new president will serve the rest of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 – and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then need to be approved by parliament.
The prime minister is to serve as president until a replacement is chosen – an arrangement that is sure to further anger protesters who want Wickremesinghe out immediately.
Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation saddled with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities. The shortages have sown despair among the country’s 22 million people. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours trying to buy scarce fuel.
Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy had grown and grown a comfortable middle class.
The political stalemate fueled the economic crisis as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The government must submit a debt sustainability plan to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.
In the meantime, the country is counting on help from neighboring India and China.
Asked if China was in talks with Sri Lanka about possible loans, a Chinese foreign ministry official gave no indication if such talks were taking place.
“China will continue to offer assistance as our capabilities enable Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
On Tuesday, religious leaders in Sri Lanka urged protesters to leave government buildings. Protesters have vowed to wait until Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe are removed from their posts.
After the storming of government buildings, “it was clear that there was a consensus in the country that the direction of government needed to change,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a think tank.
Months of protests have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Protesters accuse the president and his inner circle of siphoning off money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.
The president had not been seen or heard from since Saturday, although his office released statements indicating he was continuing to hold office.
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