Old photo shows Sri Lankan ex-president on Japan trip, not fleeing to Singapore

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After Sri Lanka's president was forced to flee and quit over a crippling economic crisis, Facebook posts and news sites shared a photo purportedly showing him travelling to Singapore. However, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa genuinely travelled from bankrupt Sri Lanka to the Maldives and later Singapore, the photo shows him on a train in Japan in 2016.

"Sri Lankan president in exile Gotapaya Rajapaksha (sic) seen in the flight to singapore from Maldives," reads a Facebook post published on July 14. 

Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka to the Maldives and then Singapore, where he quit as president in July following mass protests over the country's worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

Local media in Singapore reported on July 27 that the city-state had extended a short-stay visa for the deposed president.

The Facebook post shows the former leader sat looking at his phone, with various men in the background.

Screenshot of Facebook post captured on July 29, 2022

The photo was shared in similar posts on Facebook, including here and here, and on Twitter.

Local news site Sathiya also used the photo in its coverage of Rajapaksa fleeing Sri Lanka.

Some social media users appeared to believe the photo genuinely showed the ex-president leaving the country as the economic crisis spiralled.

"Even after being ousted, he continues to waste away public money. This flight was paid for with our money," read one Sinhala-language comment.

"None of those accompanying him look scared or worried, even though the people chased their master out of the country. This shows their arrogance," read another in Tamil. 

Japan train trip

However, the photo was taken in 2016, when Rajapaksa -- then defence secretary -- travelled to Japan to visit Sri Lankans living there.

A reverse image search on Google found the photo posted on Rajapaksa's official Facebook page on December 17, 2016.

The post reads: "On way to #Nagoya with breathtaking view of Mount Fuji. Look forward to meeting Sri Lankan community in the evening - GR".

Furthermore, the destination board in the background is written in Japanese and gives the train's next stop as Nagoya. 

Below is a screenshot comparison between the photo in misleading posts (left) and the photo from Rajapaksa's Facebook page (right): 

Screenshot comparison between the photo in misleading posts (L) and the photo from Rajapaksa's Facebook page (R)

The photo was published in local news reports about Rajapaksa's trip to Japan, including an article from Colombo Telegraph from December 2016. 

An AFP journalist recognised one of the men in the background as former minister Udaya Gammanpila, who is seen seated directly behind Rajapaksa.

Contacted by AFP, he said the photo was taken during his trip to Japan in 2016.

AFP previously debunked social media posts falsely claiming to show Rajapaksa arriving in the Maldives.