Sri Lankan immigration officials said on Tuesday that they had barred the president’s brother and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa from flying out of the country because of growing resentment against strong families over a weak economic crisis.
It is not immediately clear where the U.S. citizen is trying to get to Rajapaksa. He resigned as finance minister in early April as protests against shortages of fuel, food and other necessities on the streets escalated and he left his seat in parliament in June.
His elder brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa will resign from the presidency on Wednesday to pave the way for a unity government after thousands of protesters stormed his official residence on Saturday demanding his ouster. The president has not been seen in public since Friday and his position is unclear.
The Sri Lanka Immigration and Immigration Officers Association said its members refused to serve Basil Rajapaksa in the VIP departure lounge at Colombo Airport.
“In the wake of the unrest in Sri Lanka, immigration officials are under intense pressure not to allow top-level people to leave the country,” KAS Kanugala, chairman of the association, told Reuters.
“We are concerned for our safety. So until this issue is resolved, immigration officials working in the VIP lounge have decided to withdraw their services.”
Pictures of Basil Rajapaksa in the lounge were reported by local media and widely shared on social media, with some expressing their displeasure at his attempt to leave the country. Basil could not immediately be reached for comment with Rajapaksa and a close associate declined to give details.
A top official of the ruling party said on condition of anonymity that Basil Rajapaksa is still in the country.
The Rajapaksa family, including former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has dominated the politics of the country of 22 million for years and has mostly blamed Sri Lanka for their current plight.
The tourism-dependent economy was badly damaged by the COVID-19 epidemic, as were remittances sent from overseas Sri Lanka, where a ban on chemical fertilizers damaged farm production. The ban was later lifted.
Rajapaksa implemented a populist tax cut in 2019 that affected government finances and reduced imports of fuel, food and medicine by shrinking foreign reserves.
Gasoline has been fatally rationed, and long lines have been formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month, and the central bank warned that it could rise to 70% in the coming months.
Protesters have promised to stay at the president’s official residence until he resigns. Also on Saturday, some protesters set fire to the private residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s parliament will elect a new president on July 20, paving the way for an all-party government.
(Written by Krishna N. Das; edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan)