Home » Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes Sri Lanka's first-ever president to resign after fleeing country

Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes Sri Lanka's first-ever president to resign after fleeing country

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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has become the nation's first-ever president to resign after he fled the country amid protests over the country's unprecedented economic crisis where demonstrators demanded he step down.Parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana confirmed Mr Rajapaksa — who protesters have accused of mismanaging the economy — had "legally resigned" with effect from Thursday.He is the first president of Sri Lanka to resign since the country's adopted a presidential system of government in 1978.

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Mr Rajapaksa earlier notified the speaker from Singapore via email that he would step down., where he initially escaped after .
Protesters cheering as the exit a premises through a gate.Protesters cheering as the exit a premises through a gate.

Protesters cheered as they vacate the prime minister's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 14 July, 2022. Source: AAP, EPA / Chamila Karunarathne

Ranil Wickremesinghe — the country's prime minister who is also facing calls to step down — will automatically become acting president until parliament can elect an MP to succeed Mr Rajapaksa for the rest of his term.

The legislature will be summoned on Saturday, Mr Abeywardana told reporters at his residence, adding he hoped to complete the election process "within seven days".

What lead to the president's resignation?

Mr Rajapaksa's departure came after months of protests over what critics said was his mismanagement of the island nation's economy, leading to severe hardships for its 22 million people.The spiralling economic crisis led to Sri Lanka defaulting on its $51-billion (A$75 billion) foreign debt in April, and it is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a possible bailout.

But the talks have been thrown off course by the political upheaval, and an IMF spokesman said Thursday the fund hoped the unrest can be resolved soon so negotiations can resume.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol, with the government ordering the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.At a seafront boulevard that has served as the headquarters of the protest movement that ousted him, a small crowd gathered its remaining strength late Thursday to celebrate his resignation.Only a few hundred people were there to mark the milestone, with many veterans of the protest movement exhausted after enduring tear gas barrages and tense confrontations with security forces in the preceding days.

"I certainly feel, I think the crowd here definitely does feel, quite happy about it," activist Vraie Balthaazar told news agency AFP.

Mr Rajapaksa, his wife Ioma and their two bodyguards arrived in Singapore from the Maldives on board a Saudia airline flight.As president, Mr Rajapaksa enjoyed immunity from arrest, and he is understood to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.The former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in getting him out of the country, and said Rajapaksa feared he would be killed if he remained."I believe the President would not have resigned if he were still in Sri Lanka, and fearful of losing his life," Mr Nasheed tweeted.Singapore's foreign ministry confirmed Mr Rajapaksa had been allowed to enter the city-state for a "private visit", adding: "He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum."

He is expected to look to stay in Singapore for some time, according to Sri Lankan security sources, before potentially moving to the United Arab Emirates.

What about the prime minister?

Mr Wickremesinghe was named prime minister in May after Mahinda Rajapaksa — the brother of the outgoing president — amid mass protests over the economic crisis.His appointment was welcomed by some at the time, because he was not from the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty that has become the reviled symbol of social chaos and did not belong to the dominant parliamentary party that forms the family's power base.That has not been enough to cushion him from growing anger among ordinary Sri Lankans, who have swarmed the streets of Colombo in recent days and stormed key government buildings, prompting the president to flee abroad."We are facing a crisis, we have to get out of it," Mr Wickremesinghe told news agency Reuters as he left a temple in the main city of Colombo shortly after his swearing-in. Asked whether there was a possible solution, he replied: "Absolutely."

That solution has not come yet. Power blackouts, soaring prices, fuel shortages and collapsing hard currency reserves are signs of how vulnerable Sri Lanka's economy is.

In Colombo, demonstrators on Thursday left several of the emblematic state buildings they had occupied in recent days after Mr Wickremesinghe instructed security forces to restore order and declared a state of emergency.Witnesses saw dozens of activists leave Mr Wickremesinghe's office as armed police and security forces moved in.The capital was put under curfew and armoured personnel carriers patrolled some areas.

Hundreds of thousands of people had visited the prime minister's compound since it was opened to the public after he fled and his security guards backed down.

People standing on the balcony of a building.People standing on the balcony of a building.

Anti-government protesters after storming Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office on 13 July, 2022. Source: AAP, AP / Eranga Jayawardena

By Thursday afternoon, the gates were closed, with armed guards posted both inside and outside.Police said a soldier and a constable were injured in clashes with protesters outside the national parliament as security forces beat back an attempt to storm the legislature.Protesters also left the studios of the main state television station after breaking in on Wednesday.The main hospital in Colombo said about 85 people were admitted with injuries on Wednesday, with one man suffocating to death after being tear-gassed at the premier's office.The military and the police were issued fresh orders Thursday to firmly put down any violence, and warned troublemakers they were "legitimately empowered to exercise their force".

But student Chirath Chathuranga Jayalath, 26, said: "You cannot stop this protest by killing people. They'll shoot our heads but we do this from our hearts."

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