Sri Lanka's embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his country on Wednesday morning and landed in the Maldives, according to reports. Rajapaksa fled in a military jet hours before he was due to resign on Wednesday, following days of political unrest in the country, including his presidential palace and office being taken over by anti-government protesters.
Rajapaksa had promised to step down as the country's president on Wednesday and pave the way for a "peaceful transition" of power" shortly after fleeing his official residence in Colombo last week after tens of thousands of demonstrators overran it over the weekend. Following his departure, the Prime Minister's office declared a state of emergency as protesters continued to government offices and vandalize them.
Hiding Away from His Countrymen
Sri Lanka's air force confirmed on Wednesday that Rajapaksa used executive powers to enable his departure and that he boarded a military plane with his wife and two security guards.
"Under the provisions of the constitution and on a request by the government, the Sri Lanka air force provided a plane early today to fly the president, his wife and two security officials to the Maldives," a statement said.
Rajapaksa is believed to have intended to leave the country before resigning in order to avoid the risk of being arrested because he enjoys immunity from arrest in his capacity as president. He still hadn't turned in a letter of resignation when he left on Wednesday morning.
According to immigration sources, Rajapaksa and his family boarded an Antonov-32 from Sri Lanka's main international airport to head for Maldives.
"Their passports were stamped and they boarded the special air force flight," an immigration official involved in the process said, according to the Daily Mail.
Maldives' president, Mohammad Nasheed, and his wife met Rajapaksa and his family at the airport when they arrived in MalÃ©, the capital of the Maldives, at three in the morning.
Protesters, activists, and lawyers have demanded that the president and various Rajapaksa family members be charged with crimes of corruption and violations of human rights. Understandably, Rajapaksa wasn't to escape those and used his immunity as the president to flee his country.
Rajapaksa is reportedly delaying his resignation until he is in the United Arab Emirates, which has often served as a safe haven for disgraced politicians. The Maldives also confirmed that the Sri Lankan president is using the country just as a stopover.
The workers at Bandaranaike International refused to provide VIP services and demanded that all passengers must go via public counters, preventing Rajapaksa from taking a commercial flight to Dubai.
According to a security official, the presidential party was hesitant to use the established channels out of concern for the public's reaction. As a result, they missed four planes on Monday that would have allowed them to travel to the United Arab Emirates.
According to a security official, permission for a military flight to land in India, the group's nearest neighbor, was not immediately obtained. On Tuesday, the group briefly traveled to a naval base with the intention of escaping by sea.
Basil Rajapaksa, the president's younger brother and former finance minister, was also denied access to an aircraft to Dubai on his way to the United States, where he holds dual citizenship. Additionally, Basil was said to have fled the nation on Tuesday night.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019, has resisted calls for his resignation for months, as Sri Lanka has slipped further into a financial crisis for which he is generally held responsible.
Rajapaksa and five family members who occupied high-ranking positions in the administration are charged with extensive corruption and economic mismanagement that prevented the country from importing food, fuel, and medicines, drove inflation to record highs and left the country with no foreign currency. The 22-million-person island is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, according to the UN.
On Wednesday morning, as soon as it was revealed that he was leaving for the Maldives, protests erupted all around Colombo with people demanding that he resign immediately. As protesters gathered outside the office of the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, there was a strong security presence, and police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse them.