The president of Sri Lanka has fled the country on a military jet amid mass protests over the state of the nation’s economy.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had vowed to formally step down by July 13, the day he left the country. An official resignation letter has not yet been issued.
Rajapaksa named Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president in his absence.
“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,” the Sri Lankan Air Force said in an official statement.
Sri Lanka has been experiencing economic turmoil for the last three months marked by acute shortages of fuel, food and medicine. It’s the worst economic crisis since the country gained independence in 1948.
Inflation, which reached 54.6% in June, is expected to climb to 70% in the near future.
According to The New York Post, “the crisis comes after COVID-19 hammered the tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers, and has been compounded by the build-up of huge government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on the import of chemical fertilizers last year that devastated agriculture. The fertilizer ban was reversed in November last year.”
Rajapaksa has been accused corruption and of mismanaging the country’s economy, triggering increasingly tense protests. The country’s 22 million citizens have been ordered to observe a nationwide curfew by police.
Thousands of protestors stormed Rajapaksa’s home and office on July 9. Police were ultimately unable to contain or disperse the crowd. Security forces removed the president from his home for his protection. The president’s home and office remain under the protestors’ control as does much of the nation’s capital.
After Rajapaksa fled, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and ordered the country’s military to confront the protestors, who stormed his office and demanded his resignation.
“Police initially used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters outside the prime minister’s office but failed, and more and more marched down the lane toward the compound,” reports CNBC.
Wickremesinghe has said he would leave once a new government was in place, per CBC.
“We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” the prime minister said during a televised address. “We can’t allow the destruction of state property. The president’s office, the president’s secretariat and the prime minister’s official residence must be returned to proper custody.”
“We can’t allow fascists to take over. Some mainstream politicians, too, seem to be supporting these extremists. That is why I declared a nationwide emergency and a curfew,” Wickremesinghe added.
Sri Lanka legislators agreed on July 11 to elect a new president to serve the remaining two years of Rajapaksa’s term by July 20. It is unclear who would take over as prime minister or be appointed to the Cabinet.
The current national government is also negotiating with China over a potential loan that could help stabilize the island nation’s economy.
According to the BBC, Rajapaksa intends to leave the Maldives for a third, undisclosed country. Protests broke out on the island of southwest Sri Lanka upon his arrival.
Rajapaksa left the country while his constitutional immunity was still in effect which prevents him from being arrested or detained. He has been accused of war crimes and human rights violations. The 73-year-old was last seen in public on July 9.