Gotabaya Rajapaksa: who is president of Sri Lanka, why has he fled to Singapore and why did he resign?

In his absence, he has appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead the country

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned as president of Sri Lanka, after fleeing the country on a military jet earlier this week.

Protesters breached the gates to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office, who declared a state of emergency in the country.

The former President’s resignation letter was sent by email to the speaker of parliament, following mass protests over Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, which culminated in the storming and occupation of his official residence in Colombo.

According to Sri Lanka’s air force, Mr Rajapaksa flew to the Maldives in the early hours of Wednesday morning (13 July), accompanied by his wife and two security officials. He later travelled to Singapore.

It is unclear which country could ultimately grant asylum to Mr Rajapaksa, who is accused of war crimes.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been appointed acting president in his absence, told the military to do “whatever is necessary to restore order”and today (14 July) imposed a curfew in the capital city.

Who is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and why has he fled Sri Lanka?

Protesters recently stormed the President’s official residence

Who is Gotabaya Rajapaksa?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born on 20 June, 1949, the fifth of nine children in a Buddhist Sinhalese family.

He went to school at Ananda College in Colombo, before joining the Sri Lankan army in 1971 and undergoing military training in India, Pakistan and the United States.

He earned a master’s degree in defence studies at the University of Madras in 1983.

By the end of his military training, communal violence between the country’s Sinhalese population and Tamil minority had escalated.

Rajapaksa participated in the counterinsurgency against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other Tamil separatists, commanding a regiment in 1987 during Operation Liberation in Vadamarachchi.

He was also a commander in the government’s suppression of a Marxist Sinhalese insurrection in the late 1980s.

In 1998, Rajapaksa moved to the United States to work at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, later becoming a U.S. citizen in 2003 and thereby losing his citizenship in Sri Lanka.

What has his political career been like?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President in November 2019

In 2005, Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka to aid the presidential campaign of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When Mahinda became president, Gotabaya was appointed secretary to the Ministry of Defence - meaning he regained his Sri Lankan citizenship.

During his tenure at the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya was credited with defeating the Tamil separatists and bringing the civil war to an end in 2009.

His methods however were particularly brutal, with approximately 40,000 Tamils killed in the final months of the war - which comprised as much as half the casualties of the decades-long conflict.

In the years following the war, evidence emerged of atrocities committed in these last months, including torture, indiscriminate shelling, and the widespread killing of civilians.

The President has since been accused of war crimes and human rights violations but has eluded investigation.

When did he become president?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President of Sri Lanka on 18 November 2019.

This came after his brother Mahinda was defeated in the 2015 presidential election and Gotabaya was put forward in 2019 as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a party founded by another brother, Basil.

Gotabaya’s supporters saw him as a candidate who offered a promise of progress, stability, and security.

He was opposed however by Tamil and Muslim voters, who were fearful of restoring to power a family known for its brutality in the civil war.

Gotabaya elected Mahinda as Prime Minister.

Why has he fled Sri Lanka?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency has been a controversial one.

In May 2021, he banned the importation of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides but gave little warning to farmers, resulting in a steep decline in crop production.

In May, and later in August, the number of Covid-19 infections in Sri Lanka had surged - to rates far higher than any witnessed in 2020.

In July, Gotabaya appointed his brother Basil to the Ministry of Finance, drawing attention to the growing concentration of government administration in the hands of one family.

During this time, concerns were growing over exacerbating food shortages and the decline in revenue from a tax cut implemented before the pandemic.

Matters came to a head after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, meaning a shortage of fuel and daily power outages. This made the situation unbearable for many people in Sri Lanka.

Protests have been escalating over the past few months

Protests broke out in March, with many citizens taking aim at the Rajapaksas.

In July, protesters stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo.

He announced his intention to resign - but has since fled the country, accompanied by his wife and two security officials.

His brother, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, has also left Sri Lanka and is said to be heading to the US.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been appointed acting President, has declared a state of emergency in the country after protesters today stormed his office and has since told the military to do “whatever is necessary to restore order”.

Will he resign?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reportedly telephoned the speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament saying that his resignation letter would be sent late on Wednesday (13 July).

In a video statement, speaker Mahinda Yapa Abe said: “The president got in touch with me over the phone and said that he will ensure that his resignation letter will be received by me today.”

The President’s resignation has has now reached the speaker of parliament, who said he would complete legal processes and announce it officially on Friday.