Sri Lankan Airport Officials Thwart President’s Brother From Leaving Country

Basil Rajapaksa, former finance minister and brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, attempted to leave Sri Lanka but was prevented by airport staff as the country waited to see if the president would honor his commitment to step down on Wednesday.

Basil Rajapaksa was about to board an Emirates flight bound for Washington, DC via Dubai through a VIP departure lounge at Colombo’s main international airport early Tuesday, immigration officials said. But to show how much public sentiment against the Rajapaksa family has deteriorated over the poor economy, the lounge’s staff quit their jobs, leaving the former minister unable to sort out immigration.

“He came to the airport to leave the country but he didn’t make it,” Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Officials Association Secretary KKAJ Bandara told The Wall Street Journal. “We have retired from all duties in this lounge.”

Mr. Rajapaksa was not immediately available for comment.

The federation said it had halted the lounge’s operations for security reasons, given the current instability in the country “and the strong possibility that a large number of accused former political VIPs” are using it to leave the country. The lounge will remain closed for the foreseeable future, it said.

Barriers blocked an entrance to Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Colombo on Tuesday.


-/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The attempt to leave Sri Lanka by the former finance minister, who orchestrated much of the country’s plunge into economic despair before his resignation in April, has intensified speculation among the Sri Lankan public that the president is seeking the same. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has disappeared from public view and has remained silent since the parliament speaker said on Saturday the president had informed him of his intention to resign on July 13. The spokesman later told the BBC that the president had left the country for a brief visit, but in a subsequent interview with the journal on Monday he said he was wrong.

The spokesman, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a Rajapaksa ally who has served as a conduit for the President’s communications in recent days, also told the Journal he expects President Rajapaksa to officially step down in Colombo on Wednesday.

Months of public anger and protests over the government’s mismanagement of the economy boiled over on July 9, as protesters breached light security and occupied the president’s official residence, taking a dip in the grounds’ swimming pool, watching protest coverage on TV and taking selfies . Protesters also broke into the residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who publicly pledged to step down the same day to make way for an all-party interim government.

Protesters continued to occupy the Presidential Palace in Sri Lanka, enjoying the grounds’ pool and working out at the gym. Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to resign after his residence was stormed on Saturday. Photo: Chamila Karunarathne/ EPA-EFE via Shutterstock

Protesters have said they will not be satisfied until both leaders have officially resigned. The economic woes of recent months, which have seen Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves plummet to near zero and hampered the country’s ability to import fuel and medicines, have steadily weakened the power of the Rajapaksa family. Another brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was serving as prime minister, resigned in May, the month the country defaulted on its national debt. It is unclear what awaits members of the Rajapaksa family when a new interim government is installed.

Immigration officials said they had not received any information on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s travel plans. Executive protocols for heads of state still required a passport to be presented for immigration processing, officials said.

“Generally they inform us at the last moment, but we had no information about his movement until this moment,” KAAS Kanugala, the president of the Immigration Officers Association, told the Journal on Tuesday.

Mr. Kanugala said some other passengers were upset upon noticing Basil Rajapaksa’s presence in the VIP lounge and demanded that he be denied exit. He said immigration officials had no legal basis to prevent Basil Rajapaksa from leaving the country and he was free to go through the check-in procedures with the public at the airport terminal. Mr. Rajapaksa refused, he said.

write to Philip Wen at

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