COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country in July after tens of thousands of protesters stormed his home and office in a display of anger over the country’s economic crisis, has returned to the country after seven weeks.
Rajapaksa flew into Colombo’s Bandaranaike international airport around midnight Friday from Bangkok via Singapore. On being welcomed by lawmakers in his party, Rajapaksa left the airport in a motorcade heavily guarded by armed soldiers and reached a government-owned house allocated to him as a former president, at the center of the capital, Colombo.
On July 13, the ousted leader, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard an air force plane for the Maldives, before traveling to Singapore from where he officially resigned. He flew to Thailand two weeks later.
Rajapaksa has no court case or arrest warrant pending against him. The only court case he was facing for alleged corruption during his time as the secretary to the ministry of defense under his older brother’s presidency was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019 because of constitutional immunity.
For months, Sri Lanka has been in the grips of its worst economic crisis, which triggered extraordinary protests and unprecedented public rage that ultimately forced Rajapaksa and his brother, the former prime minister, to step down. The situation in the bankrupt country was made worse by global factors like the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but many hold the once-powerful Rajapaksa family as responsible for severely mismanaging the economy and tipping it into crisis.
The economic meltdown has seen monthslong shortages of essentials such as fuel, medicine and cooking gas due to a severe shortage of foreign currency. Though cooking gas supplies were restored through World Bank support, shortages of fuel, critical medicines and some food items continue.
The island nation has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year. The country’s total foreign debt amounts to more than $51 billion, of which $28 billion has to be repaid by 2027.
On Tuesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over after Rajapaksa resigned, and his administration reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9 billion bailout package over four years to help the country recover.
Rajapaksa, a former military officer, was elected on promises to uplift the country’s economy and ensure national security after Islamic State-inspired bomb attacks killed some 270 people in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday 2019. He relinquished his American citizenship when he contested the election because laws at the time made dual citizens ineligible from holding political office.
As a top defense official he is accused of overseeing human rights violations by the military during the country’s three-decade civil war with the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for an independent state for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils.
In April, protesters started camping outside the president’s office in the heart of Colombo and chanted “Gota, go home,” a demand for Rajapaksa to quit, which quickly became the rallying cry of the movement.
The demonstrations dismantled the Rajapaksa family’s grip on politics. Before Rajapaksa resigned, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three more close family members quit their Cabinet positions.
But the country’s new president, Wickremesinghe, has since cracked down on protests. His first action as leader included dismantling the protest tents in the middle of the night as police forcibly removed demonstrators from the site and attacked them.
There is genuine fear among people who want to protest now, said Bhavani Fonseksa, with the independent think tank Center for Policy Alternatives.
“Whether people will take to the streets to demonstrate again is still to be seen, especially since there’s been so much repression since Ranil Wickremesinghe came to power. Several protesters have been arrested so there is genuine fear,” she said.
Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat and political analyst, said the ruling SLPP party will welcome him back, but didn’t think his return would spark people to flood the streets again. “They will be sour — it is still far too early for him to return,” he said.
“There is no way Gotabaya will be forgiven for his transgressions but I think now there is more bitterness than public rage that awaits him,” Jayatilleka added.
For Nazly Hameem, an organizer who helped lead the protest movement, the former president’s return isn’t an issue “as long as he is held accountable.”
“He is a Sri Lankan citizen so no one can prevent him from coming back. But as someone who wants justice against the corrupt system, I would like to see action taken — there should be justice, they should file cases against him and hold him accountable for what he did to the country.”
“Our slogan was ‘Gota, go home’ — we didn’t expect him to flee, we wanted him to resign. As long as he doesn’t involve himself in active politics, it won’t be a problem.”