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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early Wednesday, the day he had pledged he would resign amid protests against the government’s handling of a dire economic crisis.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early Wednesday, the day he had pledged he would resign amid protests against the government’s handling of a dire economic crisis. (NASA)

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country early Wednesday, the day he had pledged he would resign amid protests against the government’s handling of a dire economic crisis.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s flight signified the Rajapaksa dynasty’s fall from political favor as the South Asian country undergoes an upheaval. Basil Rajapaksa, his brother and the former Sri Lankan finance minister, unsuccessfully tried to leave the country Tuesday, two people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post.

The speaker of the country’s Parliament announced Saturday that the president had agreed to step down, after protesters stormed the presidential residence and office in a dramatic escalation of public anger toward Sri Lanka’s leaders.

Political parties in Sri Lanka met Sunday morning, a day after thousands of demonstrators descended on the presidential palace in Colombo, the capital, demanding the resignation of the president, whose family is held responsible by many for the country’s dire economic straits. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Saturday that he, too, would give up his post “to make way for an All-Party Government.” Nonetheless, protesters set his home on fire.

The demonstrations are the latest in a months-long protest movement sparked by an unprecedented economic crisis in the South Asian nation. Fuel has almost run out, food prices and hunger have spiked, and the country defaulted on its foreign debt repayment. The turmoil has felled the political dynasty that dominated Sri Lanka for nearly two decades.

Protesters have vowed to occupy the presidential residence and prime minister’s home until Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe formally resign. On Wednesday, a crowd stormed the prime minister’s office, as well. Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe acting president in his absence. But, as of early afternoon, the promised resignations had not materialized - and frustration in the streets of Colombo was palpable.

Here’s how Sri Lanka got here:

Q: Why are Sri Lankans protesting?

A: Sri Lanka is an island nation of 23 million people off the southeastern coast of India. The Rajapaksa family has exerted political sway over the country for most of the past two decades, with Mahinda Rajapaksa serving as president between 2005 and 2015 and then later as prime minister under his brother Gotabaya. Mahinda was known for quashing the Tamil Tiger insurgency to bring Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war to an end in 2009.

The family has experienced a dramatic fall in recent months as Sri Lanka struggles with its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948, when it was called Ceylon. By early this year, food staples like rice had doubled in price from the year before. Inflation has caused hunger to worsen since then, with about 70% of Sri Lankan households reporting in a United Nations survey that they had cut back their food consumption. The country has been plagued by gasoline and electricity shortages.

Nightly protests in the capital kicked off in April, with protesters calling for the Rajapaksas to leave politics. Some demonstrations turned violent. Gotabaya’s cabinet resigned, but Mahinda refused to step down. In early May, clashes broke out between Mahinda’s supporters and anti-government protesters at Temple Trees, the prime minister’s compound. Mahinda said he would resign, but the violence continued, and the army took hours to arrive. Mahinda was eventually evacuated.

Gotabaya named Wickremesinghe to replace his brother as prime minister on May 12. But the protests carried on as the crisis worsened. Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt in May - and Wickremesinghe said last month that the economy “faced a complete collapse.”

With its national Ceylon Petroleum company $700 million in debt, countries and organizations abroad have been reluctant to send fuel to Sri Lanka. Medical workers, teachers and bankers in Colombo last week protested the lack of fuel they need to provide essential services. Nearly a quarter of the country’s residents are in need of food assistance, according to aid groups. Some Sri Lankans have boarded boats to attempt dangerous, illegal journeys to India or Australia.

Q: How did the economic crisis get so bad?

A: Domestic factors, including government policies, are largely to blame. Gotabaya’s cabinet slashed taxes and resisted seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund as debt piled up. Gotabaya backed a ban on chemical fertilizers that dented crop yields as food prices skyrocketed worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic decimated Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, a key source of foreign currency.

Nirvikar Singh, an economics professor and South Asia expert at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told The Post last month that the Sri Lankan government has been “astonishingly irresponsible and incompetent” at managing the country’s economic policy since Gotabaya, 73, took office in 2019.

Corruption and cronyism compounded the problem, with allegations implicating Mahinda and other members of the Rajapaksa family. In 2021, leaked financial documents included in the Pandora Papers showed that a relative of the Rajapaksa brothers had millions of dollars stashed in offshore accounts.

Global spikes in food and energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine have exacerbated the crisis. “This is the Ukraine effect,” Alan Keenan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The Post in April. “A credit line for fuel you thought could last two months now lasts one. Even if you get a bailout, you’re buying less food, less fuel, less medicine.”

Q: How have political leaders responded?

A: Since Wickremesinghe took over as prime minister in May, his government has resorted to desperate measures to alleviate some of the economic pain, including giving government employees a day off to grow crops in their backyards and allowing public-sector workers to take five years of unpaid leave to seek jobs abroad.

The government tried to negotiate with the IMF for a bailout, but Wickremesinghe said the country’s bankruptcy complicated that effort. Sri Lankan authorities have sought aid from India and China, and Gotabaya called Russian President Vladimir Putin in early July to ask for help with importing fuel, without success.

But the measures have done little to alleviate the country’s economic woes, leaving many Sri Lankans unsure of how they will survive. Calls mounted for the president to resign. And some are calling for top leaders to face trial for corruption.

“People from all walks of life have united with one intention - to demand that the corrupt president who clearly does not have a mandate, step down,” Himantha Wickremerathne, a 34-year-old lawyer who joined the protests, told The Post.

Hours after protesters seized the president’s residence on Saturday - with some jumping in the pool or cooking in the kitchen - the speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament said Gotabaya Rajapaksa would resign from the presidency. The prime minister’s office said Monday that all cabinet ministers would resign once a new government had been agreed upon.

In the meantime, the European Union issued a statement Sunday urging political parties to “focus on a peaceful, democratic and orderly transition” to return to normalcy.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a tweet said that Gotabaya “has lost the confidence of the Sri Lankan people” and called on political parties to “work together with the international community for a new government that respects the democratic and economic aspirations and upholds human rights the Sri Lankan people deserve.”

The Washington Post’s Hafeel Farisz and Niha Masih in Colombo,Gerry Shih in New Delhi and Ishaan Tharoor in Washington contributed to this report.


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