COLOMBO Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency on Wednesday as thousands thronged the prime minister’s office after the country’s president flew to the Maldives, following months of widespread protests over an economic crisis .
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed over the weekend to step down on Wednesday and pave the way for a “peaceful transition of power” after fleeing his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters swarmed it.
As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest and he reportedly wanted to travel abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.
He, his wife and two bodyguards were the four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military jet which took off from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, immigration sources said.
Hours later, without an official announcement of his resignation, thousands of protesters swarmed the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – who would automatically become interim president if he resigns – demanding that the two office holders leave.
“Go home Ranil, go home Gota,” they shouted.
Police fired tear gas to prevent them from invading the compound and authorities declared a national state of emergency “to deal with the situation in the country”, Prime Minister Dinouk’s spokesman said. Half-timbered.
Police have imposed an indefinite curfew across Western Province, which includes Colombo, “to contain the situation”, a senior police officer said.
Wickremesinghe has himself announced his willingness to resign if a consensus is reached on the formation of a unity government.
His office confirmed on Wednesday that Rajapaksa had left the country, but said he had no timetable for a resignation announcement.
The presidential succession process could take between three days – the minimum time needed for parliament to elect an MP to fulfill Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024 – and a maximum of 30 days allowed by statute.
Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to such an extent that the country has run out of foreign exchange to fund even the most essential imports, causing severe hardship for its 22 million people.
Earlier Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans once again filled the halls of the president’s official residence after his departure, with young couples strolling hand-in-hand in a quiet celebratory mood.
“People are very happy, because these people stole our country,” said retired civil servant Kingsley Samarakoon, 74. “They stole too much money, billions and billions.”
But he had little hope of an immediate improvement in the situation in Sri Lanka. “How are people going to run the country without money?” He asked. “It is a problem.”
The departure of Rajapaksa, 73 and once known as “The Terminator”, had been stalled for more than 24 hours in a humiliating confrontation with immigration staff in Colombo.
He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but Bandaranaike International staff withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers go through public ticket counters.
The presidential party was reluctant to go through the regular channels, fearing public backlash, a security official said, and as a result missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.
Clearance for a military flight to land in neighboring India was not immediately obtained, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed for a naval base in sight to flee by sea.
Upon arrival in the Maldives, his group was taken to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in the capital, Male, said.
Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil, who resigned as finance minister in April, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early on Tuesday after a tense confrontation with airport staff.
Basil – who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan citizenship – tried to use a paid concierge service for business travelers, but airport and immigration staff said he had withdrawn from expedited service.
The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, said he would run for the post.
Premadasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a suicide bombing by Tamil rebels in May 1993.