Where are Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa and PM Wickremesinghe?

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Two days after tens of thousands of protesters forced the president and the prime minister of Sri Lanka to flee their residences, the two leaders have not been seen in public.

While the whereabouts of embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is publicly unknown, officials told Al Jazeera on Monday that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s current address is a closely guarded secret.

Hours before the protesters began marching towards the President’s House and his office in capital Colombo on Saturday morning, police announced an overnight curfew which was denounced as illegal by legal experts.

Amid confusion and chaos following the curfew announcement late on Friday, it is believed the president’s security made arrangements for Rajapaksa to flee to a safer place.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, greets PM Ranil Wickremesinghe [File: Sri Lankan President’s Office via AP]

Journalist and political analyst Kusal Perera told Al Jazeera the president’s security had the option to take him to a naval camp through an underground bunker built during the presidency of Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

From there, experts believe, the 73-year-old president could have been taken to a navy ship through Colombo harbour.

“The gunboats were [on] standby at the navy camp since Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency,” said Perera, who was a close associate of Mahinda.

“Therefore, I can assume that Gotabaya Rajapaksa might have been taken to the adjacent Sri Lanka navy camp through the underground bunker and then taken to some other location by the navy together with presidential security,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But I actually don’t know where that vessel currently is. This is only a rough calculation.”

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Many media reports, quoting military sources, have also said Rajapaksa is currently on a naval vessel at sea.

Sources close to the president also told Al Jazeera he could be on a vessel near the Sri Lankan border and that he could flee the country if the situation gets worse.

Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, the minister in charge of police, told Al Jazeera that security officials are scheduled to meet later on Monday to assess the security situation in the country.

The security arrangements for political leaders would also be on the agenda, he said.

“We wouldn’t discuss where the president is. We would neither discuss it nor would we disclose it,” Alles told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think it is even appropriate to ask that question.”


Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, in Colombo: “There is no clear indication of where exactly President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is. There is loads of speculation and chatter on social media from visuals that one saw of two navy vessels a couple of days ago, loading luggage in mighty hurry. People thought Rajapaksa was leaving by ship. Then there are stories that he is seeking refuge in a military camp in the northeast of the country, a big naval base that also has an exit route. There are others who say he is in a massive military defence compound which is near parliament, just outside the city. But there is no confirmation to any of these claims.”


‘Cannot disclose’

Wickremesinghe, who was made homeless after his ancestral home in Colombo was set on fire in the Saturday chaos, still attends official duties at the prime minister’s office under heavy security.

Firefighters try to douse a fire at the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's private residence
Firefighters try to douse fire at Wickremesinghe’s private residence in Colombo [File: Eranga Jayawardana/AP]

At a meeting on Monday morning, some cabinet ministers agreed to “hand over their responsibilities” to a new government “as soon there is an agreement to form an all-party government”, Wickremesinghe’s office said in a statement.

As Wickremesinghe does not occupy Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence currently occupied by the protesters, it is now a closely guarded secret where he spends his time outside official duty.

“I cannot disclose that. It is for the security forces to arrange that so I cannot comment about it,” Shanuka Karunaratne, prime minister’s media secretary, told Al Jazeera.

Alles, the minister in charge of public security, said what matters is that Wickremesinghe is still carrying out his official duties.

“It is not important for us where he stays. He still comes to the PM’s office and attend[s] meetings so, especially due to security reasons, we don’t check where his private residence is,” the minister said.

Sri Lanka crisis
A demonstrator poses for photographs where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa used to hold main events at the President’s House in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Meanwhile, without directly mentioning the prime minister, President Rajapaksa has released a statement, saying he will only communicate through the parliamentary speaker. Announcements made by the speaker alone must be considered as the official statements from the president, it said.

The president issued the statement hours after another statement by Wickremesinghe’s office said Rajapaksa has officially confirmed his impending resignation on July 13.

Though the president’s assurance to quit was made public on Saturday by the parliamentary speaker, many in Sri Lanka do not trust his words and believe Rajapaksa is once again trying to buy time, hoping the public mood would change if gas and fuel supplies get better.

The president and the prime minister also seem to be engaged in a power tussle amid the crisis.

Experts say Wickremesinghe, who has contested several presidential elections, is counting his time to succeed Rajapaksa if and when he resigns.

They say the Rajapaksa clan is unwilling to pave the way for a Wickremesinghe presidency, even if temporary, and prefers Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, a close Rajapaksa relative, to succeed the president.

According to Sri Lanka’s constitution, the prime minister temporarily becomes the head of state if the president resigns. Thereafter, the parliament can either ratify the development within a month or elect another member of parliament as the president to continue the rest of the term.

If both the president and the prime minister resign, the speaker takes over the presidency.

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