Male, Maldives – Maldivians woke up on Wednesday to the news of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s surprise arrival on a pre-dawn flight, sparking a fierce backlash as the Maldives government was accused of helping the disgraced leader escape justice.
Rajapaksa fled to the neighbouring Indian Ocean archipelago hours before his promised resignation over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades. The 73-year-old flew on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane with his wife and two bodyguards to the Maldives capital, Male, the Sri Lankan Air Force confirmed.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of Sri Lankan expatriates protested at the artificial beach in Male, carrying a banner that read: “Dear Maldivian friends, Please urge your government not to safeguard criminals.”
Riot police swiftly snatched banners and placards, and dispersed the crowd. One Sri Lankan man was taken into custody.
On social media and in the comment sections of news outlets, Maldivians expressed outrage and solidarity with Sri Lankan protesters, calling for Rajapaksa’s repatriation and condemning the “shameful” decision to facilitate his departure. Concerns were also raised over the safety of an estimated 8,000 Maldivians who reside in Sri Lanka amid the continuing unrest.
The Maldivian government “sheltering Gotabaya Rajapaksa and aiding him evade accountability for war crimes and corruption is a betrayal of the people and activists of Sri Lanka who had supported struggle for democracy in Maldives,” tweeted Ahmed Shaheed, a UN Special Rapporteur and former Maldives foreign minister.
Ismail Naseer, the editor of the Maldives’ main newspaper, asked in an op-ed: “Why should Maldivians become the intermediary for fleeing easily after running a nation into the ground? Why should the Maldives government fall to such a lowly state? Why did one person become more important to the Maldivian state while many millions are starving and despairing? There’s no one to give an answer!”
Much of the anger was directed at Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed. The former Maldives president was reported to have intervened after Maldivian air traffic control refused the plane’s request to land. Local media reported that Nasheed was spotted at the airport before the military plane landed at approximately 3am local time (22:00 GMT on Tuesday).
Nasheed, who was previously coordinating efforts to secure foreign assistance for Sri Lanka, faced criticism from both Maldivians and Sri Lankans who cast doubt on his democratic credentials.
But many questioned the speaker’s authority to either authorise the landing or provide diplomatic clearance. Others argued that the Maldives could not bar entry to a sitting Sri Lankan president in the absence of an arrest warrant. The Maldives foreign ministry and the president’s office have yet to make any official statement.
Nasheed was among several dissidents who found refuge in Sri Lanka during the Maldives’ pro-democracy movement in the early 2000s. The ruling Maldivian Democratic Party was founded by exiles in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, a city considered a second home by many Maldivians. The South Asian island nations share a close bond after centuries of cultural and trade ties.
The main opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) meanwhile condemned the authorisation of Rajapaksa’s arrival as an “atrocity” and demanded answers from the defence minister and army chief.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih along with Speaker Nasheed and Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid “must bear responsibility for the danger facing Maldivians in Sri Lanka”, the PPM said, calling for immediate security measures.
The Maldives National Party, a minority party led by a former defence minister and former police commissioner, submitted a motion for a parliamentary inquiry into “how the Maldives Government acted in giving refuge to President Gotabaya”.
Unconfirmed local media reports claim that Rajpaksa and his wife are staying at the Waldorf Astoria Ithaafusi resort in South Male Atoll. According to Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror and Tamil Guardian newspapers, Rajapaksa is planning to fly to Singapore later on Wednesday.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA