Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the island and reached the nearby Maldives in the early hours of Wednesday, ahead of his promised resignation and days after enraged protesters overran his office and residence in a protest sparked by a devastating economic crisis.
However, a top official in Maldives, who asked not to be named, citing “sensitivity” of the embattled leader’s arrival, told The Hindu that Gotabaya would “only transit” the country. Asked where the Sri Lankan leader was headed next, the source declined comment.
Gotabaya’s final destination remains unclear. The United States refused a visa to him, while India has “categorically denied” facilitating travel of Gotabaya, or his younger brother and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
In a couple of tweets put out on Wednesday morning, the Indian High Commission in Colombo “reiterated” its support to the people of Sri Lanka, “as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and constitutional framework.”
Flying on an Air Force plane
Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) confirmed that the President, First Lady and two bodyguards boarded an Air Force flight to the Maldives early on Wednesday.
“In accordance with the powers vested in an Executive President in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, at the request of the existing Government, subject to the full approval of the Ministry of Defence, and subject to immigration, customs and all other laws at the Katunayake International Airport, the President along with the first lady and two security guards departed on an Air Force flight to Maldives early this morning,” the SLAF said in a statement, of its services to . Gotabaya, who holds the positions of Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief, until his likely resignation later on Wednesday.
Returning the favour?
Media reports said the Maldives’s Parliamentary Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed received Gotabaya at the airport, but there is no official word from Male so far.
Nasheed has maintained close friendships with all Sri Lankan leaders, across the political spectrum. In May, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed Nasheed as the “coordinator” for securing foreign aid to Sri Lanka.
Further, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are bound by strong ties and familial connections.
Sri Lanka has often given refuge to Maldivian leaders in exile. Exactly 10 years ago, the wife and daughters of Nasheed fled to Colombo amid escalating violence in the Maldives.
Media reports from 2012 quoted a spokesman of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa as saying: “President Rajapakse was concerned over the safety of Nasheed and his family,” while confirming their arrival in Sri Lanka.
The departure of Gotabaya has not reduced the uncertainty prevailing in Sri Lanka. To start with, the President is yet to officially resign, though he has promised to do so on Wednesday.
Gotabaya has not appointed the PM as acting President. In the event the President resigns, Sri Lanka’s Constitution provides for the Prime Minister to serve as acting President briefly, until the Parliament elects one of its members to the office of president, within one month from the date of the vacancy. If Wickremesinghe, too, resigns as per his pledge, the Speaker will serve as acting President until the Parliament elects a new President.
Meera Sreenivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo