Sri Lankan leader flees onward to Singapore as protesters leave government offices

A protester outside the presidential residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka
A protester stands outside the official residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Thursday.
(Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press)

Sri Lankan protesters began to retreat from government buildings they seized and military troops reinforced security at the Parliament on Thursday, establishing a tenuous calm in a country in both economic meltdown and political limbo.

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled a day earlier under pressure from demonstrators furious over the island nation’s economic collapse. He finally emailed his resignation Thursday, a day later than promised, according to an official — but the crisis was far from over since he has further angered the crowds by making his prime minister acting leader.

Protesters want both men out and a unity government in to address an economic calamity that has triggered widespread shortages of food, fuel and other necessities. But with a fractured opposition and confusion over who was in charge, a solution seemed no closer following Rajapaksa’s departure. Adding to the turmoil, the president left the Maldives for Singapore on Thursday.


The slow and haphazard way Rajapaksa’s departure and reported resignation unfolded underlined the confusion gripping the country. On Thursday, Indunil Yapa, an aide to Sri Lanka’s Parliament speaker, said Rajapaksa had emailed his resignation — but that it needed to be checked and an official announcement wouldn’t come until Friday.

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

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and the official residence of the prime minister. On Wednesday, they seized the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

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They initially vowed to continue occupying these places until a new government was in place, but the movement appeared to shift tactics Thursday, apparently concerned that any escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes the previous night outside the Parliament that left dozens injured.

“The fear was that there could be a crack in the trust they held for the struggle,” said Nuzly, a protest leader who goes by only one name. “We’ve shown what power of the people can do, but it doesn’t mean we have to occupy these places.”

Another protest leader, Devinda Kodagode, told the Associated Press that the demonstrators planned to vacate official buildings after the Parliament speaker said he was exploring legal options for the country in the wake of Rajapaksa’s departure.

Protesters withdrew from the presidential residence, with some moving a red carpet they had rolled up back into place as they left. Others held a news conference to announce that they were pulling out of the prime minister’s office.

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Visaka Jayaweer, a performing artist, described the bittersweet moment of closing the gate to the presidential palace after the crowds cleared out.

“Taking over his residence was a great moment — it showed just how much we wanted him to step down. But it is also a great relief” to leave, she said. “We were worried if people would act out. Many were angry to see the luxury he had been living in when they were outside, struggling to buy milk for their children.”

The country remains a powder keg, and the military warned that it had powers to respond in case of chaos — a message some found concerning.

Troops in green military uniforms and camouflage vests arrived in armored personnel carriers Thursday to reinforce barricades around the Parliament, while protesters vowed they would continue to rally outside the president’s office until a new government was in place.

The government announced another curfew in the capital, Colombo, and its suburbs in the afternoon until 5 a.m. Friday. It’s unclear what effect a curfew would have: Some ignored a previous one, but many others rarely leave their homes anyway because of fuel shortages.

Rajapaksa and his wife fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday for the Maldives, slipping away in the night aboard an air force plane. On Thursday, he went to Singapore, according to the city-state’s Foreign Ministry. It said he had not requested asylum.

Since Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, it’s likely Rajapaksa planned his departure while he still had constitutional immunity and access to a military plane.

The political impasse threatens to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic collapse since the absence of an alternative government could delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from India and China.

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The shortages of basic necessities have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline was all the more shocking because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

It was not immediately clear if Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has previously sought medical care there, including undergoing heart surgery.

Assuming that Rajapaksa resigns as promised, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president Wednesday who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.