When mass protests forced the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to fire his brother as prime minister and two other brothers and a nephew as cabinet ministers, he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. I wrote back then about possible reasons as to why he chose someone whose party had been roundly defeated in the 2019 elections and had only one seat in parliament. I suggested that it may be because Wickremesinghe is a Rajapaksa stooge who had shielded the family from consequences when he was prime minister earlier. Although he is a person of little or no talent or political skill who has got where he was because of nepotism, he was also desperate to become president, having failed in a previous election. He may have been calculating that if Rajapaksa resigned a president, then as prime minister, he was next in line to be president. After the mass protests last Saturday that demanded both their resignations, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe said they would resign but did not actually do so. Rajapaksa said he would do so today (the 13th) while Wickremesinghe said he would do so after a new government was formed. Protestors saw in this scenario an attempt by this disgraced duo to somehow stay in power.
It looks like that fear was well founded.
In scenes bordering on farce, yesterday Rajapaksa and his wife fled the country in a military plane to nearby Maldives, sparking protests among Maldivians against the Maldivian government for allowing him into the country. He had apparently earlier been foiled in other attempts to leave.
Rajapaksa’s escape followed a dramatic 24 hours in which he had unsuccessfully tried various means of leaving the country. He was blocked from boarding a commercial flight to Dubai on Monday night after airport staff refused to stamp his passport in the VIP area of the airport. India also refused to give permission for his plane to land on its soil.
The president’s younger brother Basil Rajapaksa, who served as finance minister, was also prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai en route to the US, where he is a dual citizen. Basil, too, was reported to have left Sri Lanka on Tuesday night.
There are reports that the US had turned down a visa request from Rajapaksa. It is felt that the Maldives is a temporary stop for Rajapaksa and that the final destination for him is the UAE, seen as a haven for fleeing despots, though other reports have him going to Singapore.
Meanwhile, though he was due to resign today, the letter he sent says no such thing, merely saying that he is appointing Wickremesinghe as president during his absence from Sri Lanka. It is not clear if an actual resigntion will follow soon.
“It is hereby notified that I, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, being of the opinion that I am unable to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties and functions of the Office of the President by reason of my absence from Sri Lanka, do hereby appoint Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka under Article 37 (1) of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, with effect from 13th July 2022, to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties, and functions of the Office of President during such period of my absence from Sri Lanka.”
This maneuvering has once again infuriated protestors who anticipated this kind of shameless behavior and today stormed the prime minister’s offices and the state broadcaster and vowed not to leave until he resigns. This time there there have been bloody conflicts between protestors and security forces.
After Gotabaya’s clandestine departure, a Sri Lankan official said that the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had been appointed by Rajapaksa to be acting president. Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency as protesters breached the prime minister’s offices and took over the state television broadcaster.
Protesters, who have demanded that both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe step down, were infuriated by the announcement that Wickremesinghe was now acting president. Thousands congregated outside the prime minister’s office, where they were hit with dozens of rounds of teargas by police as they tried to break through the gates. People could be seen running with their eyes streaming and blood coming from their heads.
“The situation is bad, they are firing, firing, firing the teargas non-stop, a lot of people have got injured,’ said Vinodh Blaze, 37, a tuk-tuk driver whose eyes were bloodshot from the gas.
Ranil is now acting as president and the people of Sri Lanka don’t want him. If he is president, nothing changes. We demand that Gotabaya goes and Ranil goes. We want new politicians we can trust. But we can see that he is not listening to us.”
In scenes reminiscent of the weekend, when protesters took over the president’s residential palace and offices, on Wednesday the crowds managed to breach the army barriers and stormed into Wickremesinghe’s offices. As the armed forces were overrun, people poured into the corridors and waved flags from the balconies.
You can see photos and videos of the takeover here.
Wickremesinghe has ordered a nationwide curfew and ordered the military to “do whatever is necessary to restore order… We can’t tear up our constitution. We can’t allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy”, an ominous sign that he is going to order a crackdown. Given that he has absolutely no mandate, this is a dangerous authoritarian move on his part that risks serious bloodshed.
Meanwhile the president’s brother Basil Rajapaksa, who had been the finance minister and has dual US-Sri Lankan citizenship, was also initially turned away from the Colombo airport by furious other passengers and by immigration officials refusing to staff the VIP departure lounge where he would have been able to avoid other people.
Sri Lankan immigration officials say they have prevented the president’s brother and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa from flying out of the country, as anger rises against the powerful family for a debilitating economic crisis.
The Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Officers Association on Tuesday said its members declined to serve Basil Rajapaksa at the VIP departure lounge of the Colombo airport.
“We were informed yesterday (Monday) that Basil Rajapaksa could leave Sri Lanka. But as we had decided to withdraw from duties from midnight, we didn’t see him arriving,” K A S Kanugala, president of the association, told Al Jazeera.
Pictures of Basil Rajapaksa at the lounge were reported by local media and widely shared on social media, with some expressing their anger at his attempts to leave the country.
“Following our decision to withdraw, Mr Rajapaksa reportedly came for check-in in normal passenger area. There, angry passengers shouted at him and he has reportedly left the airport,” Kanugala told Al Jazeera.
“What we can confirm is that he didn’t leave Sri Lanka officially.”
He is reported to have managed to finally leave the country as well.
Basil is supposedly utterly ignorant of economics and was seen as the person behind some of the. disastrous policies that brought the country to ruin. He was also blatantly corrupt and known as ‘Mr. Ten Percent” because of his open demands for kickbacks on any government contracts. His dual citizenship with the US would have prevented him from holding political office but his brother the president changed the constitution that barred dual citizens so that he could be appointed to the post.
Corruption and nepotism at its finest.