Sri Lankan president flees the country amid economic crisis


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The president of Sri Lanka fled the country early Wednesday, days after protesters stormed his home and office and the official residence of his prime minister amid a devastating economic crisis that has triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife, and two bodyguards left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the city of Male, the capital of the Maldives, according to an immigration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Rajapaksa had agreed to step down under pressure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave once a new government was in place.

The president's departure followed months of demonstrations that have all but dismantled the political dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

But there was no end to the crisis in sight, and protesters vowed to occupy the official buildings until the top leaders are gone. For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction — swimming in the pool, marveling at the paintings, and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point, they also burned the prime minister's private home.

At dawn, protesters began chanting against the president and prime minister, taking a break at one point as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from speakers. Demonstrators stood still, with their backs straight, and in silence. A few waved the flag.

“I am not happy he has fled. He should be in jail,” said Malik D’ Silva, a 25-year-old protester occupying the president’s office who has taken part in protests for the past 97 days.

Rajapaksa "ruined this country and stole our money. We will not stop until we have a new president and prime minister,” D’ Silva said. He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019 believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bomb attacks earlier that year killed more than 260 people.

Nearby, 28-year-old Sithara Sedaraliyanage and her 49-year-old mother wore black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home,” the rallying cry of the demonstrations,

The two said they hardly slept overnight, chanting alongside hundreds of protesters for hours, until the sun came up.

“We expected him to be behind bars — not escape to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that?” Sithara exclaimed. “This is the first time people in Sri Lanka have risen like this against a president. We want some accountability.”

The air force said in a statement that it provided an aircraft for the president and his wife to travel to the Maldives with the defense ministry’s approval. It said all immigration and customs laws were followed.

A spokesman for the main opposition party in the Maldives’ Parliament said it was regrettable that the archipelago's government allowed Rajapaksa to land.

“Why should we be a safe haven for anyone is beyond me,” said Mohamed Shareef, a spokesman for the Progressive Congress Coalition. He said the decision was against the sentiments of both Sri Lankans and Maldivians.

Sri Lankan lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled Tuesday to decide on the makeup of a new government to lift the bankrupt country out of economic and political collapse. And they have not yet decided who will take over as prime minister and fill the Cabinet.

The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 — and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have 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.

Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, and it is likely Rajapaksa planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defense official was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.

Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation laden 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 lining up for hours to try to buy scarce fuel.

Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy had been expanding and growing a comfortable middle class.

Sithara said the people want new leaders who are young, educated, and capable of running the economy.

“We don’t know who will come next, but we have hope they will do a better job of fixing the problems," she said. “Sri Lanka used to be a prosperous country.”

As a restaurant manager in a hotel in Colombo, she used to have a steady income. But with no tourists coming in, the hotel closed, she said. Her mother, Manjula Sedaraliyanage, used to work in Kuwait but came back to Sri Lanka a few years ago after she suffered a stroke. Now the daily medication she needs has become harder to find and more expensive, Sithara said.

The political impasse added fuel to the economic crisis since the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The government must submit a plan on debt sustainability to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.

In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from neighboring India and from China.

Asked whether China was in talks with Sri Lanka about possible loans, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official gave no indication whether such discussions were happening.

“China will continue to offer assistance as our capability allows for Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” said the spokesman, Wang Wenbin.

After the storming of the government buildings, “it was clear there is a consensus in the country that the government leadership should change,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a think tank.

The protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajakpaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown.

Sri Lanka