The Great Escape of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Failed Attempt of Basil Rajapaksa.

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

Beleaguered former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the first president of Sri Lanka to be forced out of office mid-term as well as flee the country after facing months of protests by the public that finally resulted in thousands storming into the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat, and Temple Trees on 9 July.

Rajapaksa also set more records by making his flight to Singapore from the Maldives become the most-tracked flight, while the people in Sri Lanka continued to wait in anticipation for his resignation letter, which kept getting delayed along with delays in his flight plans.

The resignation letter was first due on Wednesday (13). However, even by Thursday (14) morning, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s office had not received it. The delay in reaching his final destination was attributed to the delay in Rajapaksa submitting his resignation letter, as his official passport was required for safe passage to his final destination.

The letter was finally e-mailed to the Speaker’s Office by Sri Lanka’s High Commission in Singapore about an hour after Rajapaksa and his group arrived in Singapore. However, Speaker Abeywardena noted the legal issue in accepting this as Rajapaksa’s resignation letter since he required the original letter with his original signature. The Sri Lankan mission was informed to immediately dispatch the original letter through an embassy courier. The Speaker meanwhile sought the opinion of the Attorney General and Chief Justice on the matter.

However, Speaker Abeywardena on Friday (15) announced Rajapaksa’s resignation and Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was officially sworn in as Acting President afterwards.

Interestingly, it was the former Maldivian President and incumbent Speaker, Mohomad Nasheed who tweeted on Thursday (14) saying Rajapaksa has resigned. “President GR has resigned. I hope Sri Lanka can now move forward. I believe the President would not have resigned if he were still in Sri Lanka, and fearful of losing his life. I commend the thoughtful actions of the Govt. of Maldives. My best wishes to the people of Sri Lanka,” he tweeted.

However, the Opposition in the Maldivian Parliament were displeased with the Maldivian Government’s decision to accept Rajapaksa into the country. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Opposition MP Dunya Maumoon stated that a motion would be presented to the Maldivian Parliament by the Opposition seeking an explanation from the Government about its decision.

Exit operation

Be that as it may, former President Rajapaksa’s exit from the country was nothing like he had anticipated and definitely became an operation that became successful due to the intervention of the Maldives and Saudi Arabia.

A former US citizen, Rajapaksa was reportedly denied a visa to enter the country. The former President renounced his US citizenship in order to contest at the 2019 Presidential Election.

According to political analysts, the US was likely to have denied a visa for Rajapaksa for multiple reasons, ranging from his previous decision to renounce citizenship as well as the multiple litigations he was likely to face in foreign courts.
Since Rajapaksa’s wife Ioma is still a US citizen, Rajapaksa could eventually apply for a US Green Card. However, the process is expected to take time.

Rajapaksa understood that his inability to obtain a US visa could have an adverse impact on any attempts to obtain visas from Western countries. It was then that Rajapaksa decided on travelling to Dubai. However, the objections by Immigration officials to stamp the passports and the opposition being raised by passengers obstructed the plan from being carried out.

Afterwards, focus shifted to neighbouring India, with reports on social media claiming that India had been approached by Rajapaksa as his first transit point. The focus shifted to India due to the difficulties faced by Rajapaksa in flying out in a commercial flight even to a transit point and the only option was to use a military aircraft that could only fly as far as India. The plan was to proceed to Dubai from India.

However, it is reliably learnt that India was not prepared to open its doors to Rajapaksa, as it would have created a rift between India’s Central Government and the southern states. The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka formally denied the social media reports, saying there was no truth to them.

It is now learnt that Rajapaksa was at the President’s House on the morning of 9 July when the protest commenced. It was in anticipation of violence that Rajapaksa declared a curfew the previous night, 8 July, until further notice. However, the manner in which the curfew was declared was deemed illegal by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and other legal experts.

Then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is learnt, had spoken to Rajapaksa on the night of 8 July and explained that imposing curfew would further aggravate the situation as it would compel more people to join the protests. Wickremesinghe had told Rajapaksa that the reports received on the protest had shown that a crowd of around 5,000 was expected in Colombo with a maximum of around 10,000.

It was therefore believed that there was no need to move Rajapaksa out of the President’s House. Nevertheless, his security had prepared a contingency plan in the event Rajapaksa had to be hurriedly moved out of the House.

However, by around 9 a.m. on 9 July, the security personnel received information that there were hundreds of thousands of people making their way to Colombo. They immediately initiated the contingency plan.

The plan was to secretly take out Rajapaksa from the Colombo Port that is located at the southern part of the President’s House. Steps were taken to seal the nearby entry points to the port while the President’s security took Rajapaksa and his wife with a few essential items through a secret passageway from the President’s House to the Colombo Port.

Apart from Rajapaksa and his wife, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and several senior security personnel, including senior Defence Ministry officials, had also been at the President’s House on 9 July. Rajapaksa and his wife were taken to a naval vessel that was docked at the Colombo Port at around 9.30 a.m., according to an informed source.

When the security personnel escorted Rajapaksa and his wife out of the President’s House, Basil and other security heads had also accompanied them. Basil – who had lost some of his belongings in the rush, including his passport, which he had left behind in the President’s House – had also been taken aboard the Gajabahu vessel and stayed in it with Rajapaksa and co. for 24 hours.

Footage of security personnel hurriedly loading luggage in the Sri Lanka Navy’s Gajabahu patrol vessel was widely shared in the media.
Rajapaksa and his wife were kept in the vessel, mid sea, till late night on 9 July under the protection of two fast attack craft before being taken to the Trincomalee Naval Base upon realisation that there was no way back to Colombo.

Rajapaksa’s exit from Sri Lanka started with him, his wife Ioma, and two security officers leaving from Katunayake on a Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) transport plane bound for the Maldives in the early hours of Wednesday (around 1.45 a.m.) from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Immigration had cleared the plane on the tarmac.

It is reliably learnt that Rajapaksa was unable to charter a private jet for his travel due to high prices quoted by the companies operating the jets due to the risk involved in transporting Rajapaksa and co.

Legal implications

There were objections raised by the public over SLAF’s decision to provide an aircraft for Rajapaksa to leave the country. The SLAF on Wednesday morning issued a statement saying that the flight was provided in line with the powers vested with an Executive President under the country’s Constitution at the request of the Government and approval of the Defence Ministry and subject to Immigration, Customs, and all other laws at the BIA.

It is learnt that the request for the SLAF flight for Rajapaksa had come through the Defence Ministry, which, according to forces personnel, is the practice. Rajapaksa, it is learnt, had made a request from the Defence Ministry in his capacity as the President for an SLAF craft to transport him from Sri Lanka to the Maldives. The Defence Ministry had approved the request and had directed the SLAF to make the necessary arrangements.
However, legal experts have questioned how the Defence Ministry had granted approval for the SLAF to use the Antonov craft to transport Rajapaksa and his group to the Maldives as it was not an official tour and was a personal visit.

Rajapaksa’s visit to the Maldives had not followed the official and diplomatic protocols that cover an official visit of a head of state since it was part of a hasty exit plan. The question, therefore, is whether public assets can be used for what is believed to be a non-official overseas visit by Rajapaksa, even as the Head of State at the time.

Attorney-at-Law Upul Kumarapperuma, when questioned by The Sunday Morning about the legal implications of using public properties for a non-official overseas visit, explained that it was illegal to use public assets/properties for non-official visits.
He further noted that there were laws that governed the use of public properties and it was illegal to use them for ‘non-official’ purposes including air travel.

Kumarapperuma also cited an example from the past when Rajapaksa had taken his wife Ioma along with him for an official overseas visit and had paid for her air travel and lodgings during the visit. “That was done because there are clear laws on the use of public assets,” he said.

Once the aircraft was prepared for the flight, several SLAF personnel had taken the passports of the passengers to the BIA Immigration officials for them to be stamped before take-off.

Drama in Malé

The landing of the SLAF Antonov AN-32 flight in the Maldives was also filled with drama as Malé was unaware that Rajapaksa was arriving in the said flight. The Maldivians refused to give clearance for the craft to land in the Maldives until Nasheed intervened and sought the required clearance for the craft to land.
The flight finally landed at the Velana International Airport in the Maldives at 3.07 a.m. on Wednesday.

Once the aircraft landed, Rajapaksa, who remained a Head of State at the time, was provided high security and taken to a safe location until his connecting flight to reach the final destination.
Maldivian sources noted that Rajapaksa and co. were placed on a yacht in close proximity to an island used for military training by the Maldives for security reasons until their next flight was ready to take-off to Singapore.

A group of Sri Lankan expatriates in the Maldives meanwhile staged a protest outside Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih’s residence opposing the Maldives Government’s decision to accept Rajapaksa into the country.

Off to Singapore

The intensified protests in the Maldives resulted in Rajapaksa and his group being forced to delay their departure to Singapore. According to Maldivian media, Rajapaksa was to travel to Singapore aboard Singapore Airlines flight SQ 437, which was due to leave the Maldives at around 11.20 p.m. on Wednesday, but had later changed plans due to security concerns.

It was later reported that discussions were being held with the Maldivian authorities to charter a private jet for Rajapaksa to travel to Singapore on Thursday (14).

Finally, the Maldivians intervened and Saudi Arabia’s National Carrier, Saudia, agreed to transport Rajapaksa and co. from the Maldives to Singapore. Accordingly, flight number SV 788 transported Rajapaksa to Singapore, with the flight taking off from the Maldives at 11.38 a.m. local time on Thursday and touching down at Changi International Airport at 7.15 p.m. local time.

Following continuous media queries, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement noting: “In response to media queries, it is confirmed that Mr. Rajapaksa has been allowed entry into Singapore on a private visit. He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum.”

The Singapore Police statement noted: “As stated in the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Rajapaksa is here on a private visit. He is on a social visit pass. He has not sought nor has he been offered any asylum. Singapore does not generally offer asylum. Police ask that the public, Singaporeans, residents, work pass holders, and social visitors alike abide by our local laws. Action will be taken against anyone participating in a public assembly that is illegal.”

According to some unconfirmed reports, Rajapaksa had entered Singapore on a ‘Global Investor’ visa that requires a massive US Dollar investment.

It is learnt that Rajapaksa would make his future plans only after securing permanent residency at a destination of his choice following his official resignation and surrendering of the official passport. According to informed sources, regular passports are required by some countries to consider permanent residency for individuals.

BIA episode

However, prior to Rajapaksa’s departure from the country last Wednesday, his original travel plans on Tuesday (12) had to be shelved due to the opposition raised by the Immigration and Emigration officials at the BIA.

The Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Officers’ Association (SLIEOA) decided to withdraw from carrying out operations at the Silk Route Passenger Clearance Terminal at the BIA until further notice to prevent the hasty departures of VIPs using the route.
SLIEOA President K.A.A.S. Kanugala, issuing a statement, noted that the decision was taken due to the current unstable and crisis situation in the country and alleged moves by a large number of VIPs to make a hasty exit from the country through the Silk Route Terminal.

Later on Wednesday, several other trade unions also joined the SLIEOA and refrained from engaging in their duties at the Silk Route. The Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya (SLNSS) of SriLankan Airlines also announced its decision to withdraw from services at the Silk Route Terminal.

Nevertheless, the SLIEOA by Wednesday evening denied media and social media reports stating that the Immigration officers had prevented Rajapaksa from leaving the country. Issuing a statement, the association stated that Immigration and Emigration officials did not have the legal power to hold back the President, who was still officially in office, from leaving the country.

The Sunday Morning reliably learns that the Speaker’s Office had intervened to discuss with parliamentary party leaders to get their consent to let Rajapaksa leave the country and to get some political parties to discuss with the trade unions at the airport to facilitate the departure flight.

He was later airlifted to Colombo on Monday (11) in a SLAF helicopter to leave the country through SriLankan Airlines flight UL 225 to Dubai. Nevertheless, the plan had to be cancelled due to the intensifying protests at the BIA from Immigration officials.
Resignation debacle

Following the resistance faced by him and his family when they tried to leave the country, Rajapaksa stated that he would submit his resignation only when he and his family were provided safe passage out of Sri Lanka.

Even after leaving the country on Wednesday morning, Rajapaksa did not submit his resignation letter, claiming that it would be sent only after he reached his final destination.

Rajapaksa on 9 July asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to inform him of the decisions reached by the party leaders who met under the Speaker’s patronage that evening.

Following the party leaders’ meeting, the Speaker officially conveyed the decisions reached by the party leaders. The President then informed the Speaker that he would resign on Wednesday (13). The message was announced to the public by Speaker Abeywardena.
However, on Monday (11), there were reports that Rajapaksa had already signed and handed over his resignation letter to the Speaker to be in effect from Wednesday.

Wickremesinghe being officially appointed as Acting President and Parliament being officially informed of Rajapaksa’s resignation brought an end to the tenure of one of the most powerful presidents of Sri Lanka.

Basil’s first attempt fails

Former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s attempt at leaving the country in the early hours of Wednesday (13) also ran into trouble after being turned away from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) the day before, on Tuesday (12).

On Tuesday, Basil Rajapaksa had to turn away from the airport after Immigration and Emigration officials on duty at the Silk Route Passenger Clearance Terminal at the airport refused to carry out the official clearance work required for his departure. Other passengers of the Emirates flight EK 649 to Dubai also objected to Basil’s departure from the country, especially on the same flight as them.

Basil arrived at the Silk Route Terminal at BIA around 12 midnight as the flight was scheduled to take off at 3.15 am on Tuesday.
Basil’s ticket for EK 649 was issued on Monday (11) under the booking reference PCR652. Around Rs. 5.3 million had been spent on the airline for the return flight according to ticket details. The return date on the ticket under Basil’s name has been stated as 2 March 2023.

Emirates officials were also in a difficult spot with the flight’s pilots expressing concerns that the flight may experience difficulties in the event passengers became uneasy and protested while the flight was in the air.

Basil was expected to travel from Colombo to Dubai on EK 649 and onwards to Washington DC on EK 231.

Foreign media reported that Basil had left for Mumbai in India on UL 141 on Wednesday (13) where he stayed in transit before flying to his final destination – the US. Unlike his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Basil has no difficulty in flying to the US since he remains a US citizen holding a US passport.

However, Basil had not left the country, with his Counsel informing the Supreme Court on Thursday (14) that he (Basil) would remain in the country until Friday (15). The Counsel had given this undertaking to the Supreme Court when a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition filed against him (Basil), former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, and former Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Ajith Nivard Cabraal over their role in the ongoing economic crisis was taken up for hearing, with the prosecuting Counsel seeking a travel ban on the respondents until the case was concluded.

On Friday (15), the Supreme Court issued an order preventing former Prime Minister Rajapaksa and Basil from leaving the country till 28 July.

Courtesy:Sunday Morning