Sri Lanka is in chaos and its president has fled. Here’s what we know

The president’s final destination is unclear – he is said to have been on a “Saudi flight”, fueling speculation that his final destination could be Saudi Arabia.

Here’s what we know.

Rajapaksa was expected to step down on Wednesday, clearing the way for new leadership. Instead, he and his wife boarded a military plane early Wednesday morning and fled the commercial capital of Colombo for the Maldives.

The plane was denied permission to land in the Maldives until former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, now Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, intervened, according to a senior security official. Nasheed’s spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the interference.

The Maldives and Sri Lanka are close neighbors – the capital of the Maldives, Male, is just a 90-minute flight from Colombo. And Nasheed and Rajapaki have a history of collaboration. In 2012, amid anti-government protests in the Maldives, Nasheed and his wife sought political asylum in Sri Lanka, which was then led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of the current president.

Maldivian government did not confirm Rajapaksa’s presence in the country, but Sri Lankans living in the Maldives still took to the streets of Male on Wednesday to protest his reported arrival.

Photographs from the capital of the Maldives show a crowd of people holding the flag of Sri Lanka and signs reading: “Drop it here” and “Dear Maldivian friends, please urge your government not to protect criminals.”

On Thursday, Rajapaksa left the Maldives for the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore, a senior military source familiar with the matter told CNN. According to the source, the president left on a “Saudi flight.”

CNN believes the source was referring to Saudi Arabian Flight 788, which took off from Male at 11:30 local time on Thursday. Saudi Arabia is the flag carrier of Saudi Arabia.

The source said Rajapaksa was waiting to get a “private jet” from a close family member in Colombo, but it “didn’t materialize.”

CNN contacted the foreign ministries of Singapore and Saudi Arabia but received no response.

Sri Lankans living in the Maldives demonstrate in Male on July 13.

Is Rajapaksa still president?

The president did not formally resign, but in a statement he named Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president, although Wickremesinghe had previously said he would step down to make way for a new government.

Mahinda Parliament Speaker Yapa Abeywardena confirmed on Thursday that he had not yet received the letter of resignation from Rajapaksa, adding that he hoped the letter would be delivered the same day.

According to the country’s constitution, the resignation of Rajapaksa will be considered official only after the speaker of parliament receives a letter of resignation.

A new president was due to be elected on 20 July following the resumption of parliament on 16 July, although Rajapaksa’s abrupt departure and lack of confirmed resignation cast doubt on this.

The departure of Rajapaksa is a historic moment for the island nation. which his family ruled with an iron fist for most of the last two decades until they lost the faith of their once-adoring citizens.
Sri Lankan protesters occupy the prime minister's office in Colombo on July 13.

What’s going on with the protests?

Colombo looked calm on Thursday after several days of escalating protests when a curfew was declared from noon to 5 am on Friday.

Showcases last weekend were among the most dramatic ever seen, with protesters setting fire to the private residence of Wickremesinghe in an affluent area and swimming in Rajapaksa’s private pool.

On Wednesday, hundreds of demonstrators stormed the premier’s office in Colombo after a confrontation with armed police. Protesters also entered the premises of Sri Lanka’s state broadcaster Rupavahini.

A protester takes cover from a tear gas canister during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 13.

Photos taken on Wednesday show crowds of protesters filling the prime minister’s office, waving the Sri Lankan flag and singing. Some ran out onto the balconies and flung open the windows, shaking their fists at the crowd gathered below.

In response, the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Photographs show protesters covering their faces with masks, bandanas and plastic goggles; some took tear gas canisters to throw at the police.

At least 75 people were injured during Wednesday’s protests, according to the Colombo National Hospital. According to a hospital nurse, many people were brought in due to tear gas poisoning, while others had cuts and bruises, likely from trying to jump over a fence.

How the fugitive president of Sri Lanka turned into a

One police officer was seriously injured during the protests on Wednesday and was taken to a hospital where he was treated, the Sri Lankan police said on Thursday. An army sergeant was also injured in clashes with protesters, the police added.

During the incident, protesters took away a T-56 rifle and two live ammunition clips of 60 rounds each, police said. The police were looking for service weapons and ammunition to bring them back into custody.

As the demonstrations escalated, Wickremesinghe’s office declared a state of emergency, later lifted, and a nighttime curfew. He also appointed a committee of senior military commanders to coordinate ground troops throughout Sri Lanka and “restore law and order”.

What caused the crisis?

Sri Lanka, off the coast of India, has been rocked for months by ongoing protests over worst financial crisis for seven decades.
The country’s foreign exchange reserves fell to a record low and dollars ran out to pay main import including food, medicine and fuel, leaving millions of people unable to feed their families, fill up their cars or access essential medicines.

Since March, there have been frequent and mostly peaceful protests, accompanied by growing public anger over food prices, power cuts and the government’s handling of the crisis. The protesters demanded the resignation of Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe.

As the Sri Lankan leader agrees to step down, protesters sing in the streets.  But the future is uncertain and the economy is ruined

The crisis has been brewing for years, say experts, who point to a series of government decisions that have exacerbated external shocks.

Over the past decade, the Sri Lankan government has borrowed huge amounts of money from foreign lenders to finance public services, said Murtaza Jafferjee, chairman of the Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute.

This surge in borrowing coincided with a series of blows to Sri Lanka’s economy, triggered by both natural disasters like the monsoons and man-made disasters, including a government ban on chemical fertilizers that wiped out farmers’ crops.

Faced with huge deficits, Rajapaksa cut taxes in a doomed attempt to stimulate the economy. But the move backfired, hitting government revenue instead. This prompted rating agencies to downgrade Sri Lanka to near default, meaning the country lost access to foreign markets.

Sri Lanka then had to use its foreign exchange reserves to pay off the public debt, which led to a reduction in its reserves. This affected the import of fuel and other necessities, causing prices to skyrocket.

On top of that, in March, the government introduced the Sri Lankan rupee into circulation, which means that its price was determined based on supply and demand in the foreign exchange markets. However, the depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar only worsened the situation of ordinary Sri Lankans.

CNN’s Iqbal Athas, Rukshana Rizvi and Nikola Karim contributed to the story.