Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘stuck’ as U.S. ‘rejects’ visa request

After securing a thumping win in 2019, Gotabaya became, arguably, the most unpopular leader in the country amid a grave economic crisis

Updated - July 13, 2022 12:14 am IST

Published - July 12, 2022 05:04 pm IST - COLOMBO

People stand holding a national flag at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office on the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 11, 2022.

People stand holding a national flag at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office on the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 11, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

 The United States rejected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent request for a visa, The Hindu learns from a top official, amid growing speculation over the besieged leader’s “attempts to flee” the country after promising to quit office.

Mr. Gotabaya, formerly a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the U.S., gave up his American citizenship ahead of the 2019 elections because of a law that barred foreign nationals from running for the presidency. He won the election with a thumping majority but became, arguably, the country’s most unpopular leader mid-term, amid a severe economic meltdown that is stifling citizens.

“He sought a safe passage to the U.S. after the recent events, but it was denied,” the Colombo-based official said on Tuesday. Mr. Gotabaya’s reported attempt to leave the island follows his decision to resign, prompted by a sensational citizens’ protest on Saturday. Resisting his failed response to the unprecedented economic crisis gripping the island, a wave of protesters stormed the Presidential Secretariat and residence in Colombo in a dramatic escalation of months-long protests demanding that Mr. Gotabaya “go home”.  He was evacuated from his official residence hours before the incident, officials said. However, his whereabouts remain unknown since.

When The Hindu sought a comment from the American Embassy in Colombo, a spokesperson said: “Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases.” 

In a statement on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung called upon all parties “to cooperate to achieve a peaceful, democratic transition of power”. It signalled a clear shift from the U.S.’s position just a month ago, when President Gotabaya appointed PM Ranil Wickremesinghe as Premier, disregarding widespread citizens’ agitations, to prolong the life of his government that a majority of Sri Lankans had deemed untenable. “Look forward to working w/ @RW_UNP. His appointment as PM, and the quick formation of an inclusive government, are first steps to addressing the crisis & promoting stability. We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF & long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans,” the Ambassador said in a tweet on May 12.

Where is Gota? 

Meanwhile, Mr. Gotabaya, expected to resign officially on July 13, is said to be exploring other options, according to sources in Colombo. It was widely rumoured that Mr. Gotabaya was headed to a West Asian country on Monday for immediate safety, fearing further reprisals in Sri Lanka. AFP on Tuesday reported that he was “stuck” in Colombo on Tuesday, his last day in the country’s top office with presidential immunity. 

Mr. Gotabaya was unable to depart, following a standoff with immigration staff at the airport, who resisted his attempt to leave for a safe location abroad, reportedly a Gulf capital. Immigration officials suspended their services in the VIP suite.  

“The President and his wife spent the night at a military base next to the main international airport after missing four flights that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates,” AFP said in its report. When contacted, an official attached to the Presidential Media Division declined comment on the President’s current location.   

Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena earlier told the BBC that the President was in a “nearby country”, but swiftly withdrew the comment calling it “a mistake”.  

Mr. Gotabaya’s youngest brother and ex-Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was also prevented from leaving the capital after immigration staff refused to stamp his papers. Mr. Basil is a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the U.S.   

The option of fleeing appears to have got harder for Mr. Basil and his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, two-time President and former Prime Minister, following a motion filed in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on Tuesday. Petitioners have sought a travel ban on them, along with others, “responsible” for the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.  

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