Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has returned to the country seven weeks after fleeing when tens of thousands of protesters stormed his home and office in a display of anger over the country’s economic crisis.
Mr Rajapaksa flew into Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport at around midnight on Friday from Bangkok via Singapore. He was welcomed by lawmakers from his party before travelling in a heavily guarded motorcade to a government-owned house allocated to him as a former president, at the centre 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 travelling to Singapore from where he officially resigned. He flew to Thailand two weeks later.
Mr 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corruption during his time as the secretary to the ministry of defence under his older brother’s presidency — was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019 because of constitutional immunity.
Mr Rajapaksa and his brother, the former prime minister, were forced to step down after months of protests over Sri Lanka's worst economic crisis. The situation in the bankrupt country was made worse by global factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but many blamed the once-powerful Rajapaksa family for severely mismanaging the economy and tipping it into crisis.
The economic meltdown has caused months-long shortages of essentials such as fuel, medicine and cooking gas due to a severe shortage of foreign currency. Although 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 Mr Rajapaksa resigned, and his administration reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9bn bailout package over four years to help the country recover.
Mr Rajapaksa, a former military officer, was elected on promises to uplift the economy and ensure national security after ISIS-inspired bomb attacks killed some 270 people in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in 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 defence official he is accused of overseeing human rights violations by the military during a military campaign to defeat rebels who fought a three-decade civil war 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 Mr Rajapaksa to quit, which quickly became the rallying cry of the movement.
The demonstrations dismantled the Rajapaksa family’s grip on politics. Before Mr Rajapaksa resigned, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three more close family members quit their Cabinet positions.
The country’s new president, Mr Wickremesinghe, has cracked down on protests since taking office. 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 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.
Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat and political analyst, said the ruling SLPP party would welcome Mr Rajapaksa back, but did not 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,” Mr Jayatilleka said.
For Nazly Hameem, an organiser of 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.”
With reporting from Associated Press.