The deposed president of Sri Lanka returned Friday, September 2 to Colombo, ending his exile in Thailand. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, was greeted at Colombo’s main airport, an airport official said, by ministers with flower garlands, seven weeks after he had to flee the country amid protests in protesters holding him responsible for the country’s economic bankruptcy.
He had fled Sri Lanka in July, taking refuge first in the Maldives, then in Singapore where he announced his resignation. His 28-day visa having expired without possible renewal, he had since been in Thailand, where local authorities had asked him not to leave his hotel for security reasons, keeping him practically under arrest.
“He lived in a Thai hotel as a virtual prisoner and was eager to return”said the defense official, who requested anonymity. “We just created a new security division to protect him after his return”the official continued, “the unit is made up of elements of the army and police commandos”.
Mr Rajapaksa had a 90-day visa to stay in Thailand, but he chose to return with his wife, a bodyguard and another aide, the official said. The Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees bodyguards, a vehicle and accommodation to former presidents.
Towards a reopening of several criminal investigations
Human rights defenders say they welcome his return and assure that they will work for his arrest “for the crimes he has committed”. “We will be able to bring him to justice”said Tharindu Jayawardhana, spokesperson for the Young Journalists Association of Sri Lanka.
“We have already asked the Inspector General to reopen the criminal investigations that have been shelved” when he became president, the spokesperson added. “We have listed 21 cases targeting him”. Resigning halfway through his five-year term, Mr. Rajapaksa lost the immunity guaranteed to him by his duties. He could therefore be prosecuted.
Mr Rajapaksa, who renounced his US citizenship to run for president in 2019, is being prosecuted in California for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga and the torture of Tamil prisoners.
The police deployed plainclothes officers in addition to armed guards at a government residence in Colombo assigned to him. Security at his private home has also been tightened, officials said.
The country of 22 million people has been ravaged for months by a historic economic crisis, marked by severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine, due to a lack of foreign currency to finance imports.
2.9 billion in IMF aid
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected in 2019 promising “horizons of prosperity and splendour”, saw its popularity rating decline as the crisis worsened. He fled the island on July 13, four days after his official residence was stormed by tens of thousands of protesters exasperated by months of deprivation.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded him, declared a state of emergency and promised to crack down on troublemakers. In mid-August, through Basil, his younger brother and former finance minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had asked President Wickremesinghe to make arrangements for him to return safely to the island.
The South Asian island defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in mid-April. The International Monetary Fund on Thursday announced conditional aid of $2.9 billion to clean up its finances. The IMF board has yet to ratify the deal.
“This is an important step in the history of our country”said President Ranil Wickremesinghe. “The beginnings will be difficult”he added, “Only our commitment counts now, because we must not only reach the objectives set, but also exceed them”.