Sri Lanka: Fleeing president lands in Singaporeon July 14, 2022 at 1:46 pm

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to resign by Wednesday after mass protests, but has failed to do so yet.

A Saudia airline Boeing 787 Dreamliner bound for Singapore and carrying Sri Lanka's fleeing president Gotabaya RajapaksaImage source, Getty Images

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has arrived in Singapore on a flight from the Maldives, where he fled after mass protests over his rule.

Singapore’s government said he had been “allowed entry on a private visit”. It is not clear if Mr Rajapaksa will stay or move to another destination.

He pledged to resign by Wednesday amid public anger over the island’s economic crisis, but has failed to do so yet.

The cost of food, fuel and other basic supplies has soared for Sri Lankans.

The president fled to the Maldives on Tuesday night on a military plane and there has been much speculation about his plans. Reports say he took a Saudi airline flight, accompanied by his wife and two bodyguards.

“He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said, confirming he had landed.

The leader, who as president enjoys immunity from prosecution, is believed to have wanted to leave Sri Lanka before stepping down to avoid the possibility of arrest by an incoming administration.

Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday imposed a curfew for a second day. His government ordered a curfew from noon (06:30 GMT) to 05:00 Friday to quell protests.

The streets of Colombo were calmer as anti-government demonstrators began leaving some of the official buildings they had occupied.

“We are peacefully withdrawing from the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat and the prime minister’s office with immediate effect, but will continue our struggle,” said a spokeswoman for the protesters.

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (C) addresses the nation along with Army Commander Shavendra Silva (L), Navy Chief Nishantha Ulugetenne (2L) and Airforce Chief Sudarshana Pathirana (R) during the Sri Lanka's 73rd Independence Day celebrations in Colombo on February 4, 2021

Image source, Getty Images

Mr Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president by President Rajapaksa after the latter fled – but the decision triggered further protests demanding the PM also resign.

One person died and 84 others were injured during Wednesday’s protests, which took place at key landmarks around the capital, Colombo, including the prime minister’s office.

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Who will let him stay?

Analysis by Tessa Wong, Asia Digital Reporter in Colombo

Many are asking where Gotabaya Rajapaksa is planning to flee to next. But perhaps the more important question is: who will let him stay?

It is unclear if Singapore is a transit point on the way to the Middle East, or if he intends to stay in the Southeast Asian island, and if so, for how long.

But sources say it is doubtful the Singapore government will allow him to stay for long

The rich city state has in the past played host to controversial figures such as Thein Sein, Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. But harbouring Mr Rajapaksa for the long term is likely to be a line they will not cross.

This is a man accused of war crimes, under intense global scrutiny right now, having gone on the run while his country slides into economic collapse. The international criticism that Singapore would receive would not be worth it.

Authorities would also have to contend with the backlash from the Singapore public, which in recent years has become more vocal and assertive.

The country also has a significant Tamil population, some of whom are of Sri Lankan heritage. Mr Rajapaksa is accused of allowing the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians during the civil war while he was defence secretary.

Many Tamil Singaporeans would be made furious by his presence, which would in turn rock the peace that authorities have painstakingly maintained.

In short, the longer Mr Rajapaksa stays in Singapore, the bigger the headache for authorities. And it may be a headache they would rather do without.

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Major demonstrations since April over the country’s economic crisis escalated after protesters broke into the presidential palace on Saturday and set fire to the prime minister’s private home.

On Wednesday, police fired tear gas at protesters attempting to break down the gates of the prime minister’s office in Colombo, before finally forcing their way in. They later headed for parliament but did not get in.

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By Thursday, protesters had handed back the president’s official residence to the authorities when the BBC visited. There were no protesters at parliament on Thursday afternoon, a BBC correspondent confirmed.

“We captured this building to show people power. We give it back the way we captured it and leave. We will come back in the next minute if needed,” Danish Ali, a protester at the prime minister’s office, told BBC Tamil.

Many blame the Rajapaksa administration for mishandling the crisis and see Mr Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister in May, as part of the problem.

The president’s departure has created a threatening power vacuum in Sri Lanka, which needs a functioning government to help dig it out of financial ruin.

Politicians from other parties have been talking about forming a new unity government, but there is no sign they are near agreement yet. It’s also not clear whether the public will accept what they come up with.

Under the constitution, it’s the prime minister who should act in the president’s stead if the latter resigns – but the fact that Mr Rajapaksa has not done so yet has raised questions over the validity of the acting president’s hold on power.

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Sri Lanka: The basics

  • Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It won independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up 99% of the country’s 22 million population.
  • One family of brothers has dominated for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the majority Sinhalese in 2009 when his government defeated Tamil separatist rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary at the time, is the current president, but says he is standing down.
  • Presidential powers: The president is the head of state, government and the military in Sri Lanka, but does share a lot of executive responsibilities with the prime minister, who heads up the ruling party in parliament.
  • Now an economic crisis has led to fury on the streets: Soaring inflation has meant some foods, medication and fuel are in short supply, there are rolling blackouts and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger, with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the situation.
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