Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after enduring massive protests against him for three months, fled the country with his wife and two bodyguards in a Sri Lanka air force plane to the Maldives on Wednesday. This may well be the swan song of his brief foray in Sri Lanka politics. Only three years ago, Army veteran Gotabaya, hailed as the hero of the Eelam War, scored a thumping victory in the presidential poll, and promised as the guardian of Buddha Sashana, security and stability for everyone. He has now fled the country, leaving it on the brink of chaos. A day earlier, he made an effort to leave the country in an airline aircraft. However, it failed after Colombo airport officials could not guarantee his security when the passengers objected to his travel.
In his last act as President and Commander-in-Chief of armed forces, Gotabaya commandeered an air force plane to take his entourage for the Maldives in the wee hours on 13 July. According to media reports, he had secured a visa to the Maldives, after the US, India and the UAE denied it. It is ironic that Gotabaya gave up his US citizenship to become eligible to contest the presidential poll in 2019.
Gotabaya may have wanted to spend time in peace in Male, ruing Bob Dylan’s 1976 lyrics of Going, Going, Gone: “I’ve just reached a place/Where the willow don’t bend/There is not much more to be said/It’s the top of the end/I’m going/I’m going/I’m gone.” But that was not to be, as crowds of Maldivians and expatriate Sri Lankans gathered outside Maldives president Ibrahim Solih’s house, demanding Rajapaksa be sent back to Sri Lanka. The hapless Rajapaksa will now be catching a flight to Singapore, where he has been given asylum.
He will be joining the global list of ‘illustrious’ veterans including Idi Amin Dada and Pervez Musharraf, who set out to remove the kinks in democratic rule, but ended up in exile. Generally, their ambition and greed overtook the norms of good governance and democratic conduct.
The former president has left the nation, grappling with not only empty coffers and shortages of food and fuel, but also to find answers to three Ws — Who, What and When — after his departure? It is not easy to find answers to the three questions. The triumph of three-month-long people’s struggle on 9 July has changed the dynamics of Sri Lanka’s traditional power politics, dominated by two dozen families. It has demonstrated that rulers, however popular and powerful they are, cannot take the people for granted, for all times to come.
This was brought home on 9 July, when protestors in thousands responding to the nationwide call, overcame police barricades and water cannons and teargas to forcibly occupy the President’s House and Secretariat and Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister. President Rajapaksa had agreed to resign on 13 July. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to resign when an all-party government was formed. The protestors have continued to occupy the seats of power till the resignation of the president and prime minister is implemented.
The three Ws have gained urgency after Speaker Mahinda Abeywardhane announced that on 20 July, Parliament members will be electing a new President. As per Sri Lanka’s Constitution, the newly elected president will serve the balance of the term of Gotabaya’s tenure till November 2024. He will also be choosing his team including the prime minister and ministers to run the government. The parliamentarians will be electing the new president by secret ballot which could cut across party loyalties. So, political leaders are carrying on hectic lobbying to decide their choice.
Three names circulating as presidential aspirants are Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the Opposition (of Samagi Jana Balawegaya — SJB) Sajith Premadasa, and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Dallas Alahaperuma. A section of the SLPP wants Wickremesinghe to become President, while SJB has fielded Premadasa for the post of president. SJB’s offer of prime minister’s post to Alahaperuma has not been accepted, presumably because SLPP is the largest party in Parliament. Many political leaders have objected to Wickremesinghe, who lost the parliamentary election making a backdoor entry as president.
The Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), which had been on the forefront of protests, is said to be in favour of appointing Speaker Mahinda Abeywardane as president. It feels the appointment of a political leader with future presidential ambitions will work with a bias in favour of his party.
But the whole political process took an unexpected turn for the worse on 13 July, after President Rajapaksa left for the Maldives without submitting a letter of resignation. According to the Speaker, he had promised to submit it before the end of the day. In the meanwhile, President Rajapaksa has informed the Speaker that as he was going out of the country, he was appointing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as Acting President, in terms of Article 37(1) of the Constitution. Accordingly, Wickremesinghe assumed the office as Acting President.
The first thing the Acting President did was to order an island-wide emergency ostensibly because the president was out of the country. He followed it with the imposition of curfew in Western Province. After thousands of angry protestors surrounded the prime minister’s office, Wickremesinghe ordered the security forces to round up those engaging in unruly behaviour and impound the vehicles used by them. However, repeated use of teargas and baton charges could not stop the mob entering the prime minister’s office.
In the midst of utter chaos, Wickremesinghe, in a special TV address, on Wednesday said that a committee comprising the CDS, IGP and commanders of three services has been appointed to restore law and order to bring back normalcy. He also said he had given instructions to the security forces to control the situation in the country.
He said that he had met the party leaders to discuss the situation that can arise after the resignation of President Rajapaksa. He said that they had decided to hold the election for the presidency and provide security to parliamentarians.
He alleged that some groups of protestors had organised to storm the prime minister’s office and surround the residence of the air force commander for providing President Rajapaksa a plane to fly to Maldives. According to intelligence reports, the protestors were attempting to capture power through such activities and they had also planned to storm the Parliament. He averred that he had declared both an emergency and a curfew to “do away with this threat of fascism. We have to protect the homes of the average citizens”.
So, it seems Sri Lanka is back to the brink of chaos as the protestors have no faith in the pious words of politicians. The youth who are energising the protests cannot be wished away as they are a determined lot. Answers to “Who, What and What, after Gotabaya” can only be found when the confrontation between the government and the protestors is resolved amicably and a new President is elected on 20 July to restore some stability. Otherwise, it will be a tragedy as people are reeling under shortages of food stuff and fuel, in the midst of chaos.
The author is a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Views expressed are personal.