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 early on Saturday from Bangkok via Singapore. After being welcomed by lawmakers in his party, Rajapaksa left the airport in a motorcade heavily guarded by armed soldiers.
The ousted leader, his wife and two bodyguards had left the country on 13 July aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives, before travelling to Singapore, where he officially resigned. He flew to Thailand two weeks later.
Sources close to the former president said that he will move into an official residence in Colombo and have a beefed-up security team. Political analyst Dr Aruna Kulatunga said Rajapaksa will also be entitled to an official residence, which will be passed on to his wife upon his demise.
Sanjeeva Edirimanna, an MP and spokesman for Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) said: “We didn’t plead to bring him back. He has all the right to return. What we discussed was providing special protection to him. President or not, he is entitled to security as the former defence secretary.”
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.
Father Amila Jeewantha Peiris, a prominent figure the popular movement which pushed for Rajapaksa’s resignation, described the former president’s return as “shameful”.
“People will not oppose his coming back to Sri Lanka. I don’t think that there will be protests, but his return will definitely create more tension. He is one of the people who are responsible for the chaos in Sri Lanka,” he said.
The situation in the bankrupt country was made worse by global factors including the Covid 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 island nation has suspended repayment of nearly $7bn in foreign debt due this year. The country’s total foreign debt amounts to more than $51bn, of which $28bn has to be repaid by 2027.
On Tuesday, Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9bn 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 approximately 270 people in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in 2019.
In April, protesters started camping outside the president’s office, demanding Rajapaksa to quit,.
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 new president, Wickremesinghe, has since cracked down on protests.
There is genuine fear among people who want to protest now, said Bhavani Fonseka, with the independent thinktank the Centre 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.
“What is the point of him [Rajapaksa] coming back? How can that help us? I would rather have him far away than in the country,” said K Anulawathi, a mother of two from Madiwela whose family is struggling to make ends meet.