President flees crisis-ridden Sri Lanka as anger turns on PM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, slipping away just hours before promising to step down under pressure from protesters exasperated by a devastating economic crisis.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, slipping away just hours before vowing to step down under pressure from protesters enraged by a devastating economic crisis. But the crowds quickly formed their anger against the Prime Minister, storming his office and demanding that he leave as well.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife left on an air force plane bound for the Maldives – and he named his prime minister acting president in his absence. This seemed to only further stir up passions in the island nation, which has been plagued for months by an economic disaster which has triggered severe food and fuel shortages – and is now beset by political chaos.

Thousands of protesters – who had expected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to be made interim president – gathered outside his office and some scaled the walls, as crowds shouted their support and threw water bottles at those who were charging.

Dozens of people could then be seen inside the office and standing on a rooftop terrace waving the flag of Sri Lanka – the latest in a series of government buildings that protesters have occupied in their quest for new leaders.

“We need both… to go home,” Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant, said in the crowd. “Ranil couldn’t deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should quit. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas.

But Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency, appeared on television to reiterate that he would not leave until a new government was in place – and it was unclear when that would happen. Although he fled, Rajapaksa has not resigned yetbut the speaker of parliament said the president had assured him he would do so later in the day.

Police initially used tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters outside the prime minister’s office, but failed, and more and more marched down the lane towards the compound. As the helicopters flew overhead, some protesters raised their middle fingers.

Eventually the security forces appeared to give up, with some retreating from the area and others simply standing around the overrun compound. Inside the building, the mood was festive, as people lounged on sofas and held mock meetings in meeting rooms.

Protesters have already seized the home and office of the president and the official residence of the prime minister after months of protests that have all but dismantled the political dynasty of the Rajapaksa family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. . At some point they also burned Wickremesinghe’s private home.

On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to flock to the presidential palace. For days people flocked to the 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 dawn, protesters took a break to sing as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from loudspeakers. A few waved the flag.

Protesters accuse the president and those close to him of siphoning money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.

The family denied corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse, which left the island nation laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities.

Shortages have sown despair among the 22 million people of Sri Lanka and were all the more shocking because before the recent crisis, the economy was booming and a comfortable growth of the middle class.

“Not only Gotabaya and Ranil, the 225 members of parliament should go home. Because for the past decades, family politics has ruined our country,” said Madusanka Perera, a worker who came from the outskirts to Colombo on the day protesters first occupied government buildings. He lost his job and his father, a driver, cannot do it because of the shortage of fuel.

“I’m 29 – I should be having the best time of my life, but instead I have no job, no money and no life,” he said.

The political stalemate only fueled the economic disaster as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is counting on help from neighboring India and China.

As protests escalated outside the prime minister’s compound on Wednesday, his office imposed a state of emergency that gives broader powers to the military and police and declared an immediate curfew in the city. western province which includes Colombo. It was unclear what effect the curfew would have: some ignored it, while many others rarely leave their homes anyway due to fuel shortages.

During his television appearance, Wickremesinghe said he had created a committee of police and military leaders to restore order.

The Air Force said in a statement earlier that it had provided a plane, with Defense Ministry approval, for the president and his wife to fly to the Maldives, an archipelago in the ocean Indian known for its exclusive tourist resorts. He said all immigration and customs laws were followed.

The fate of other family members who had served in government, including several who have resigned from their posts in recent months, was uncertain.

Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, and it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his escape while still enjoying constitutional immunity. A corruption case against him in his former role as defense chief was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.

Assuming Rajapaksa steps down as planned, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20 who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who should then be approved by Parliament.

“Gotabaya’s resignation is one problem solved – but there are so many others,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old marine electrical engineering student who is not related to the prime minister.

He complained that Sri Lankan politics has been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all have to go. “Politics should be treated like a job – you should have qualifications that get you hired, not because of your last name,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.


Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.


Learn more about AP coverage in Sri Lanka at

Krishan Francis and Krutika Pathi, The Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia