Sri Lanka’s embattled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa flew out of his country to the Maldives early on Wednesday, in a likely prelude to his resignation after months of widespread protests against his country’s worst-ever economic crisis, shining the spotlight on ties between the island nation and Maldives.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised on the weekend to resign on Wednesday and clear the way for a “peaceful transition of power” after fleeing his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it. He, his wife and two bodyguards were the four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military aircraft that took off from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, immigration sources told AFP. On arrival in the Maldives, they were driven to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in the capital Male said.
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. He had 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 was 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 nearby 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.
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Lankan — tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast-track service.
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.
According to several media reports, Maldives’s Parliamentary Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed — a close friend of Lankan leaders cutting across party lines — received Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the airport.
The ties between the two nations have always been strong. In May, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed Nasheed the “coordinator” for securing foreign aid to Sri Lanka.
After a closed-door meeting between the leaders, Wickremesinghe’s office said in a statement: “During the discussions, the former President of Maldives generously offered to assist Sri Lanka in securing relief for the country from foreign nations. The Prime Minister accepted the former President’s offer and appointed him to coordinate the relief efforts.”
Nasheed has been keeping an eye on the developments in Sri Lanka and the civil uprising. Following violent attacks that spilled over to the streets of Colombo, he tweeted: “Oh my dearest Lanka, please don’t go there. Please come back.”
The leaders of the two countries have also maintained ties over the years, with Sri Lanka giving refuge to Maldivian leaders. In 2012, Nasheed’s wife and daughters fled to Colombo as violence peaked in the Maldives. Media reports from 2012 quoted a spokesman of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa as saying: “President Rajapakse was concerned over the safety of Mr. Nasheed and his family”, while confirming their arrival in Sri Lanka, The Hindu reported.
Standing the test of time
The Maldives established formal ties with Sri Lanka on the very first day it gained Independence — July 26, 1965. From education, trade and investment, tourism and culture to military cooperation, the two countries have stood steadfast with each other.
In a speech to the Maldives Parliament, Wickremesinghe said according to the Mahavamsa, the great Sri Lankan chronicle, “the Maldives was known as Mahiladvipika and is supposed to be the place where part of the group that came with Prince Vijaya settled down”.
“The people of our nations also share common attributes of culture, food and linguistics. Our languages Dhivehi and Sinhalese have a common origin in Elu Prakrit. Sri Lanka is considered to be the second home for many Maldivians – providing shared experiences in educational and medical services. Many Sri Lankans work in the Maldives while all of us relish the famous Maldivian Fish product known to us as Umbalakada.
But, Honorable Speaker, Our commonalities are not limited to culture, food and trade. Both our people have a strong commitment to democracy.”
The India angle
On Wednesday, India categorically denied “baseless and speculative” media reports that it facilitated Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s movement to the Maldives.
“The High Commission categorically denies baseless and speculative media reports that India facilitated the recent reported travel of (President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) out of Sri Lanka,” the High Commission of India in Sri Lanka tweeted. “It is reiterated that India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values , established democratic institutions and constitutional framework.”