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Sri Lanka’s Church leaders hail ‘people power’ as country’s president flees to Maldives

Sri Lanka's president flew out of his country to the Maldives in a probable prelude to his resignation

Several Church leaders in Sri Lanka hailed what they described as the victory of the people after the country’s embattled president flew out of the country to the Maldives early on Wednesday, July 13.

“Hats off to all,” read a social media post by Father Rohan Domenic, a Claretian missionary priest who works with the UN council for the religious.

“All people are responsible for the relief we experience today. We made it together,” he said, adding that, “We the People has the real power.”

The priest noted that “many people don’t realize they have power” and “most people give up their power by thinking they don’t have any.”

“So, the power-hungry leaders, who are few in numbers take advantage of this situation and become powerful and make the real powerful to feel powerless,” said Father Rohan.

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and a bodyguard were among four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military aircraft which took off from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, according to immigration sources.

On arrival in the Maldives they were driven to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in Male said.

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The departure of the 73-year-old leader once known as “The Terminator” had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating stand-off with immigration personnel in Colombo.

Salvatorian priest Jokin Anthony Nirmal Suranjan told Matters India that the resignation of the president and the prime minister is the Sri Lankan “people’s victory.”

A report on Agence France Presse said Rajapaksa earlier wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.

The presidential party were reluctant to go through regular channels fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result, missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.

Clearance for a military flight to land in the closest neighbor India was not immediately secured, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed to a naval base with a view to fleeing by sea.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Rajapaksa’s youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a tense standoff of his own with airport staff.

Basil — who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan nationality — tried to use a paid concierge service for business travelers, but airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast track service.

“There were some other passengers who protested against Basil boarding their flight,” an airport official told AFP. “It was a tense situation, so he hurriedly left the airport.”

Basil had to obtain a new US passport after leaving his behind at the presidential palace when the Rajapaksas beat a hasty retreat to avoid mobs on Saturday, a diplomatic source said.

Official sources said a suitcase full of documents had also been left behind at the stately mansion along with 17.85 million rupees (about US$50,000) in cash, now in the custody of a Colombo court.

There was no official word from the president’s office about his whereabouts, but he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for the 22 million population.

If he steps down as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP to serve out the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

Women stand in front of a graffiti painted outside the premises of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace, in Colombo on July 10, 2022, a day after it was overrun by anti-government protestors. (Photo by Arun Sankar / AFP)

But Wickremesinghe has himself announced his willingness to step down if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.

The succession process could take between three days — the minimum time taken to convene parliament — and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute. If Rajapaksa does step down on Wednesday, the vote would take place on July 20, the parliamentary speaker has said.

The leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, has said he will stand for the position.

Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51-billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel. – with a report from AFP and Matters India

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