Gota’s ‘dash for the exit’ shocks the world

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Although protesters are celebrating President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country, the dramatic and hasty exit of Sri Lanka’s Head of State, without handing over his official resignation letter to the Speaker, shocked the international community, who called for a smooth transition of power, with several British Parliamentarians seeking his arrest on an international arrest warrant.

When the country is in chaos, it is natural for the Speaker to take control of the Government, however, the embattled President, on 13 July, appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (supposedly unofficial), to be the Acting President after announcing that he was taking a break. This took the protesters by surprise too and the protest is continuing to unseat the Prime Minister, perhaps leading to a constitutional coup, by the time this edition went to print.

The political crisis was initially secondary to the financial crisis, but it took centre stage after 9 May, when former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa unleashed violence on peaceful protesters at Galle Face. International human rights organisations, legislators, and world leaders began to voice against it and said the protest was legitimate.

The protest intensified, and the President was not seen in public, until he was forced to ‘escape’ the people’s wrath.

Political embarrassment of the Rajapaksas

The most crucial event in Sri Lanka was the political uprising in which protesters fought their way to the top to depose Sri Lanka’s all-powerful President Rajapaksa. It was victory at the end of the people’s struggle to depose him on Wednesday (13), but the Rajapaksas have faced the worst political embarrassment, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The downfall began when the President took office in November 2019 and eventually became problematic beginning in May 2022.

Several foreign articles and news reports condemned Rajapaksa’s political culture from the time they captured power in 2005 and after the 2019 victory, the Rajapaksas took control of almost 70 per cent of the country’s finance.

Most news outlets and websites have covered how nepotism and a single family rule have upended Sri Lanka’s peace. The Rajapaksas were once again the favourites after the 2019 victory, but the population turned against them when starvation and other shortages such as fuel, gas, medicines, and food items tightened their belts.

The Rajapaksas blamed the Easter Sunday Attacks and the coronavirus pandemic, but never acknowledged their mismanagement, the numerous instances of corruption that were made public, or the sandwiching the country in the geopolitical sphere, tilting towards China.

The entrance of President Rajapaksa into politics was when he was the Defence Secretary after 2005, which crowned him with glory. He threw some thrilling interviews to international media as former Defence Secretary. He called the media outlets and shouted at them. He was seen as an anti-media person and an anti-Tamil and Muslim and anti-Christian. He was easily swayed by the image of a war hero and a roaring military man. He wanted the ‘One Country, One Law’ policy enacted using a Buddhist monk to lead that mission and that did not augur well with the public and the international civil societies.

Despite his affection for the people of the country, visiting villages and institutions to learn about the ‘suffering’ of the people, he was adamant about listening to experts while in office. He was enforcing laws against government employees and institutions. He forced Parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers to do their part of the work and submit report after report, which irked them. He fired many of those who refused to follow his orders. The President pushed hard to implement his manifesto, but many of his initiatives backfired, such as the chemical fertiliser ban, and the country’s financial plan had cost it dearly. Many of his actions had an impact on the common man on the streets, resulting in a drop in domestic income and a fatal economic crash. This led to the dramatic ousting of the Rajapaksas from power and saw the exit of President Rajapaksa.

Despite the ongoing demonstrations, it huffed and puffed when Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, and the President’s chances of resigning slimmed. However, on 9 July, the more than 200,000 protesters entered Colombo and at around 10:00 a.m. breached the Presidential Palace and the Presidential Secretariat, forcing President Rajapaksa to flee.

GotaGoGama (GGG) was the first embarrassment for any President. Even Google Maps displayed GGG, and foreign journalists arriving at the BIA to cover the country’s unique financial and political crisis had asked BIA officials and taxi drivers how to get to GGG.

Protests have previously occurred wherever the Rajapaksas have travelled. When the President visited New York for the United Nations General Assembly last year, Sri Lankan expatriates held placards around the building. There were vehicles displaying posters of alleged war criminals. Previously, Mahinda Rajapaksa travelled to Italy and faced similar challenges. In 2016, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Malaysia, Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, was beaten up at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by local Tamils after he refused to reveal the whereabouts of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in Malaysia for a conference. On the invitation of the Oxford Union and the Sri Lanka Society of Oxford University, Mahinda was also barred from speaking at the prestigious Oxford Union.

US wants smooth transition of power

The US Embassy in Colombo refused to comment on claims it had rejected a visa for President Rajapaksa, although the Hindu said his visa was rejected.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung called for a peaceful transfer of power within Sri Lanka’s democratic and constitutional framework, which she said was essential for a better future. She urged all parties to approach this juncture with a commitment to the betterment of the Nation and to work quickly to implement solutions that will bring long-term economic and political stability. She condemned the violence on the protesters too.

UK parliamentarians seek arrest

Despite the UK’s political crisis, with Boris Johnson stepping down, leading to the election of a Tory leadership and, eventually, the search for a new Prime Minister, Sri Lanka’s political issue was given prominence and live coverage in the UK Parliament.

On the day after the President left Sri Lanka, British MP Sir Ed Davey asked in the House of Commons, “Can we start with an economic package… can that be followed by a political package that includes an international arrest warrant for President Rajapaksa and his cronies?” The British Parliament held an urgent debate on the state of Sri Lanka, with increasing calls for a new pluralist Constitution, recognition of Tamil self-determination, ratification of the Rome Statute, arrest of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and justice for Tamils.

The United Kingdom, along with Canada, the United States, and the European Union, has made a strong call to address Sri Lanka’s human rights record and has tabled resolution on Sri Lanka and most of the accusations were about the alleged war crimes and potential arrest of President Gotabaya, who is on the run.

Exit to the Maldives, India denies involvement

Even Bloomberg said, the Saudi Arabian Airlines aircraft flying Rajapaksa from the Maldives to Singapore, was the world’s most-tracked flight on Thursday.

The Sri Lankan President, who arrived in the Maldives in the early hours of Wednesday in a Sri Lanka Air Force An-32 aircraft, faced a protest march demanding him to leave. He was helped to enter the Maldives by Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, who said it was inevitable to “save his life” from the protesters. The President’s escape was negotiated by former Maldivian President and Maldivian Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed, who requested President Ibrahim Solih to allow them to land in Malé. Nasheed went to the airport to greet Rajapaksa. Initially, the military plane couldn’t land in Malé without diplomatic permission. Nasheed also condemned the burning of the Prime Minister’s family home two days ago. There were rumours that India had helped the President to enter Malé with the support of the ruling party there.

However, the Indian High Commission denied any involvement in facilitating President Rajapaksa’s departure from the country following his exit to the Maldives.

Hundreds of Sri Lankan expatriates took to the streets to protest the arrival of the Sri Lankan President, and the Maldivian Police were seen forcefully dispersing Sri Lankan protesters, who were demanding Maldivian authorities to return President Rajapaksa to Sri Lanka. There was a protest at Muliaage (the Maldives President’s House) urging to send the President out of Malé.

In addition, the Maldives National Party Parliamentary Group tabled a motion in Parliament to clarify how the Maldives Government acted in giving President Rajapaksa refuge. According to Maldivian authorities, he only used the Maldives as a “transit” destination. The Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), the alliance of the Maldives’ opposition party, yesterday (14) said the Maldives’ ruling party had meddled in the internal affairs of neighbouring Sri Lanka and that the Government should apologise to Sri Lankans, investigate the incident, and take preventive measures to ensure that this does not happen again in the future. The MDA was referring to the Maldives Government allowing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge in Malé. “We strongly condemn the decision in which the Government intervened in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country, which is in no way acceptable and may have long-term consequences.” Also, a motion to clarify how the Maldivian Government behaved in bringing President Rajapaksa to the Maldives will also be submitted to the Majlis by the Maldives National Party’s parliamentary group yesterday.

Dunya Maumoon, former Foreign Minister of the Maldives, expressed concern about the state of affairs in Sri Lanka. “We believe the Maldives should respect the wishes of the Sri Lankan people as they want a change in government. As we all know, Sri Lanka is experiencing an economic and political crisis. People are surviving without jobs, food, and fuel. In this, we must exercise caution. We also think that in any nation, leaders should be held accountable for their deeds, and the Sri Lankan people are expressing their wishes in this regard.”

The MDA added the fact that Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Nasheed led Gotabaya’s arrival in the Maldives on a Sri Lanka Air Force plane early on 13 July was a blow to the people of Sri Lanka, who are in an economic abyss and desperately seeking stability, the MDA said.

“We believe that it is essential that all parties involved in this matter shall take action to prevent such actions from happening again in the future. At the same time, we call on the Government of the Republic of Maldives to publicly apologise to the Sri Lankan people. Since the Maldivian Government has always pursued a neutral foreign policy, we should not under any circumstances violate this policy by getting involved in the internal affairs of countries.” 

Arrival in Singapore

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with his wife and two security personnel, arrived in Singapore on 14 July from the Maldives, where he had spent the previous 24 hours fleeing anti-Gotabaya protests demanding his resignation. It was unclear why he had left for Singapore, but the Singaporean Government said he was there on a private visit.

The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs was questioned about President Rajapaksa’s arrival. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that Rajapaksa had been granted entry to Singapore on a private visit. The MFA also said the Sri Lankan President had not requested asylum and had not been granted asylum. The Government also emphasised that Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum.

Ukrainian President blames Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky charged that Russia was to blame for the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka, pointing out that the disruption of food supplies during the invasion of Ukraine has caused unrest throughout the world. Zelensky claimed that one of Russia’s strategies for invading Ukraine was to create an “economic shock” in his speech to the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul.

Due to the ongoing crisis and supply chain disruption, countries are experiencing food and fuel shortages, which have contributed to their civil unrest and benefited Russia’s agenda. “And this affects more than just us. Consider the recent events in Sri Lanka as a single example. A social uprising resulted from the shocking increases in food and fuel prices. Who knows how it will turn out right now.” Zelensky, in his address to the Asian nations, reiterated that the same explosions are probable in other countries.

Human Rights Watch

As a State of Emergency was announced on 13 July, Sri Lankan Security Forces and other authorities should respect the rights of protesters, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday (14), adding that the military should only act under civilian control and all Security Forces need to uphold fundamental principles on the use of force and in accordance with fundamental human rights.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe called the protesters a “fascist threat” and said he had imposed a state of emergency and curfew to retake control of public buildings and “bring the situation back to normal.” The emergency regulations, which provide the Security Forces and other authorities special powers, have not been published. While international law permits the suspension of certain rights during an emergency, protections against torture, excessive use of force, and other fundamental rights can never be violated, HRW added.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, as Acting President, declared the emergency as well as a curfew in the Western Province, which includes the capital, Colombo, after the outgoing President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country following months of an unprecedented political and economic crisis. Protests against the Government’s failure to address the crisis have continued with the President’s departure. “Emergency regulations cannot be used to ban all protests or to allow the Security Forces to use excessive force against protesters,” said South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly. “Past emergencies in Sri Lanka raise grave concerns that the military and Police will use the new declaration to abuse activists and others protesting against the Government,” she added. Wickremesinghe announced that a committee consisting of the Chief of Defence Staff, Army, Navy, and Air Force Commanders, and the Inspector General of Police had been appointed to “restore order,” and given broad authority to act independently.

The HRW said Rajapaksa had been implicated in grave international crimes during the civil war that ended in 2009, and since. By stepping down from the presidency, he will lose his domestic immunity from prosecution. He may also be prosecuted for alleged international crimes in other countries.

They also emphasised that Sri Lanka’s international partners should urgently call on the Sri Lankan authorities to respect human rights in resolving the political and economic crisis. They also pressed the Sri Lankan authorities to investigate and prosecute official corruption, which has contributed to the crisis and should freeze assets held abroad if they are suspected to have been obtained from corruption in Sri Lanka.

The HRW also emphasised that the IMF should tell Wickremesinghe that a stable government with public legitimacy is required to carry out a programme that addresses both the immediate needs of Sri Lankans and the root causes of the economic crisis.

Lessons from other countries

There had been no previous instances of Sri Lankan leaders fleeing the country. It was the Sri Lankans that chased away the British Raj and the Indian Peace Keeping Force during the war. Some of the leaders who fled their countries due to corruption, killing people, and causing political mayhem are mentioned in history. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, former Tunisian President Ben Ali who fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife Leila Ben Ali and their three children, Idi Amin of Uganda who fled into exile in Libya before settling in Saudi Arabia, and former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to name a few.

Rajapaksa’s exit has now become part of Sri Lanka’s history, and it is vital to know that Sri Lankans are capable of overthrowing governments in the future. This may be the only way to prevent corruption and the misappropriation of national assets merely because the masses voted for them, as the politicians aided and abetted each other. It’s a global village and Sri Lanka is strategically located in the world map, and if Sri Lankans fail to tackle their own problems, the rest of the world will.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan