Ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa set for return to Sri Lanka

The former leader is expected to stay in a house provided by the government in Colombo. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGALORE - Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to return to the island nation some time on Friday, after he fled anti-government protests in July, a spokesman from the Department of Information confirmed to The Straits Times. 

Other informed sources said his security arrangements were being worked out. 

His return to Sri Lanka after more than a month abroad suggests that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is confident about maintaining order after arresting key activists who led the nationwide protest movement that erupted against Mr Rajapaksa’s financial mismanagement that led to the country’s worst economic crisis. 

The government spokesman declined to give The Straits Times any more details about the return. But unnamed sources told Bloomberg that the former leader is expected to stay in a house provided by the government in Colombo. 

Mr Rajapaksa, 73, who was seen as a strongman leader, fled to Singapore in July via Maldives with his wife in an air force plane as hundreds of angry demonstrators stormed his official residence in Colombo. 

He formally resigned as president on July 14 after arriving at Singapore and then moved to Thailand in August. Both countries gave Mr Rajapaksa visas for short-term private stay. He did not ask for asylum and neither was he granted one.

When Mr Rajapaksa was abroad, Sri Lanka’s parliament elected then-acting president and six-time former prime minister Wickremesinghe as the new president. 

Although he is a member of the United National Party, Mr Wickremesinghe had the backing of Mr Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the largest bloc in the 225-member parliament.

The irony of Mr Rajapaksa’s return to his home country where thousands had chanted the slogan “Gota Go Home” since March demanding his ouster, is not lost on the protesters. 

A senior activist, who spoke anonymously out of fear of arrest, told The Straits Times: “If Gotabaya returns, ideally he must be held accountable for his policy mistakes and corruption. But seeing how Ranil acted against citizen protesters, it’s unlikely that his government will take any hard steps against Gotabaya.” 

Local media reports on Aug 19 quoted SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam as saying that his party had requested the president to facilitate Mr Rajapaksa’s return and “ensure security and necessary facilities".

Mr Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda told Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times in a report published on Aug 21, after four months of silence: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not responsible for all the country’s ills. Everybody including me and the previous governments would have to answer. Unfortunately, he (Gotabaya) acted on the advice of the experts he trusted. Therefore, he cannot be blamed.”

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was former prime minister, resigned in May during the protests.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's highest court has allowed Mr Rajapaksa's other brother, former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa to travel overseas until Jan 15, anti-corruption body Transparency International Sri Lanka said on Friday.

"Court allowed Basil Rajapaksa to travel overseas upon a request made by his counsel seeking permission to go for medical check-ups. He is supposed to return by 15th January 2023," said Transparency International, which had sought a ban on his travels.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Thursday provisionally agreed to loan Sri Lanka US$2.9 billion (S$4 billion). The funds will be disbursed over four years to help stabilise the economy and boost growth. 

Sri Lanka owes more than US$51 billion in foreign debt, of which US$28 billion has to be repaid by 2028. Its economy has buckled under dwindling foreign exchange reserves, crippling shortages of essential items and Asia’s fastest inflation of around 65 per cent.

The IMF programme will implement major tax reforms, raise government revenue to support fiscal consolidation, introduce new pricing for fuel and electricity, hike social spending, bolster central bank autonomy, and rebuild depleted foreign reserves.

“Sri Lanka needs a government with a mandate to carry out reforms,” said IMF Mission chief Peter Breuer on Thursday.

A political analyst said there was only "exhaustion" across Sri Lanka in response to news about Mr Rajapaksa's return, with prices skyrocketing and incomes falling, and proxy leaders having offered no respite.

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