Sri Lanka is in chaos and its president has fled. Here’s what we know

Singapore confirmed that Rajapaksa landed and was allowed to enter the country on a “private visit”, but did not seek or be granted asylum.

Rajapaksa then tendered his resignation in an emailed letter to Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardenena, according to the president’s office, although the office also warned “we cannot accept such an email at the foot of the letter”.

Here’s what we know.

Where is the president?

Rajapaksa was due to step down on Wednesday, paving the way for new leadership. Instead, he and his wife boarded a military plane in the early hours of Wednesday and fled Colombo to the Maldives.

The plane was denied permission to land in the Maldives until former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, now Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, intervened, according to a senior security official. A spokesperson for Nasheed neither confirmed nor denied the intervention.

The Maldives and Sri Lanka are close neighbors – the Maldivian capital Male is only a 90 minute flight from Colombo. And Nasheed and the Rajapaksas have a history of cooperation. In 2012, amid anti-government protests in the Maldives, Nasheed and his wife sought political refuge in Sri Lanka, then ruled by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current president’s brother.

The Maldivian government did not confirm Rajapaksa’s presence in the country, but Sri Lankans living in the Maldives still took to the streets of Male on Wednesday to protest his arrival.

Photos from the capital of the Maldives show a crowd of people holding the Sri Lankan flag and placards reading: ‘Throw it here’ and ‘Dear Maldivian friends, please urge your government not to protect criminals’.

Rajapaksa left the Maldives for the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore on Thursday, a military source familiar with the matter told CNN. The president left on a “Saudi flight”, the source said.

CNN believes the source was referring to Saudia Flight 788, which departed Male Thursday at 11:30 a.m. local time. Saudia is the national airline of Saudi Arabia. CNN contacted Saudia but did not hear back.

Rajapaksa landed in Singapore later on Thursday, and its foreign ministry issued a statement that read: “It is confirmed that Mr. Rajapaksa has been granted permission to enter Singapore for a private visit. He didn’t ask for asylum and he didn’t get it either. Singapore does not generally accept asylum applications.

A Saudi Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner believed to be carrying Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives at Changi Airport in Singapore on July 14.

Is Rajapaksa still president?

Sri Lankan parliament speaker Abeywardenena received an email with Rajapaksa’s resignation, the president’s office confirmed to CNN on Thursday, but added that “legality needs to be checked.”

It has been shared with the relevant authorities for verification of it,” the office said. “Once we have the official confirmation and it is legally verified, we hope to make a statement about it tomorrow. [Friday] Morning.”

Abeywardenena’s office added that they expected to receive a hard copy of the letter, but it would take longer as it would be sent from Singapore.

Rajapaksa’s resignation would only be considered official once the president receives a letter of resignation, according to the country’s constitution.

A new president was due to be elected on July 20 after parliament resumes on July 16 – although that timetable has now been suspended.

Rajapaksa’s departure is a historic moment for the island nation, which his family had ruled with an iron fist for much of the past two decades before losing the faith of their once-adoring citizens.
Sri Lankan protesters occupy the Prime Minister's office in Colombo on July 13.

What’s going on with the protests?

Colombo appeared calm on Thursday after several days of escalating protests, with a curfew declared from noon to 5 a.m. on Friday.

Last weekend’s protests were among the most spectacular yet, with protesters burning down Wickremesinghe’s private residence in an affluent neighborhood and swimming in Rajapaksa’s private swimming pool.

Hundreds of protesters stormed the compound of the Prime Minister’s office in Colombo on Wednesday following a clash with armed police. The demonstrators also entered the premises of the public television channel Sri Lanka Rupavahini.

A protester runs for cover from a tear gas canister during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 13.

Photos from Wednesday show crowds of protesters crammed into the prime minister’s office, waving the Sri Lankan flag and chanting. Some invaded balconies and opened windows, raising their fists at the crowds gathered below.

Police responded with tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Photos show protesters covering their faces with masks, bandanas and plastic goggles; some picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back at the police.

At least 75 people were injured in Wednesday’s protests, according to the Colombo National Hospital. According to a hospital nurse, many people were brought in from tear gas inhalation, others with cuts and bruises likely from trying to jump over fences.

How Sri Lanka's runaway president went from

A police officer was seriously injured during protests on Wednesday and was rushed to hospital where he was receiving treatment, Sri Lankan police said on Thursday. An army sergeant was also injured in scuffles with protesters, police added.

During that incident, protesters took a T-56 rifle and two live ammunition magazines, holding 60 rounds each, police said. Police were looking for the service weapon and ammunition to bring back into custody.

As protests escalated, Wickremesinghe’s office declared a state of emergency – later overturned – and a nightly curfew. He also appointed a committee of senior armed forces commanders to coordinate ground troops across Sri Lanka and to “restore law and order”.

What caused the crisis?

Sri Lanka, located just off the coast of India, has been rocked by continuous protests for months over its worst financial crisis in seven decades.
The country’s foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to record lows as dollars run out to pay for essential imports including food, medicine and fuel, leaving millions unable to feed their families, refuel their car or to access basic medicines.

Frequent and largely peaceful protests have taken place since March, with growing public anger over food costs, power cuts and the government’s handling of the crisis. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe.

As Sri Lanka's leader agrees to step down, protesters chant in the streets.  But the future is uncertain and the economy is destroyed

The crisis has been going on for years, experts said, pointing to a series of government decisions that have worsened the external shocks.

Over the past decade, the Sri Lankan government has borrowed huge sums of money from foreign lenders to fund public services, said Murtaza Jafferjee, president of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute.

This borrowing spree coincided with a series of blows to the Sri Lankan economy, both natural disasters like the monsoons and man-made disasters, including a government ban on chemical fertilizers that decimated the farmers’ crops.

Facing a massive deficit, Rajapaksa cut taxes in a doomed attempt to stimulate the economy. But this decision backfired, affecting public revenue instead. This prompted rating agencies to downgrade Sri Lanka to near-default levels, meaning the country lost access to overseas markets.

Sri Lanka then had to fall back on its foreign exchange reserves to repay the public debt, reducing its reserves. This has impacted imports of fuel and other essentials, driving up prices.

To top it all off, the government launched the Sri Lankan rupee in March, meaning its price was determined by demand and supply in the foreign exchange markets. However, the fall of the rupee against the US dollar has only made matters worse for ordinary Sri Lankans.

CNN’s Iqbal Athas, Rukshana Rizwie and Nicola Careem contributed reporting.

About Kristina McManus

Check Also

Late father’s Social Security robbery leads to jail for Erie woman

After her father’s death in December 2006, Erie resident Loraleigh Helen Barber said she became …