Colombo: Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was accorded a warm welcome as he returned to Colombo from Thailand amid tight security late Friday, ending his 51-day self-imposed exile after fleeing abroad following months-long mass protests over the country’s worst economic crisis.
Rajapaksa, 73, was festooned with flowers by a welcoming party of ministers and politicians as he disembarked at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport from Bangkok via Singapore.
The duty manager of the airport said that the former president arrived in the country at around 11.30 PM Friday aboard a Singapore Airlines flight. After being welcomed by lawmakers of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, Rajapaksa left the airport in a motorcade heavily guarded by armed soldiers.
“He will not be involved in politics despite many of the party members expecting him to start politics again,” a source from the ruling SLPP told EconomyNext website after confirming Rajapaksa’s arrival.
“Many core party members are also against the former president coming into parliament using the national list. They do not want him to become the leader again. He has not committed any crimes. So, he has all the rights to return to the country and all privileges as the former president,” the report quoted the source as saying.
Rajapaksa is given special security. The ousted leader, his wife Loma Rajapaksa and two bodyguards left the country July 13 aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives, before travelling to Singapore, where he officially resigned a day later. He then flew to Thailand two weeks later.
Rajapaksa had been staying in Thailand on a temporary visa and flew back home via Singapore. The ex-president travelled from Thailand to Singapore to take the flight as there are no direct flights between Bangkok and Colombo, sources said.
Rajapaksa will be living in a state bungalow close to Wijerama Mawatha in Colombo while a large security contingency will be deployed to maintain security in the area, the Daily Mirror newspaper reported.
Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka to the Maldives on a Sri Lanka Airforce plane and then proceeded to Singapore, from where he sent in his resignation July 14.
Later, he flew to Thailand, seeking temporary shelter. Thailand had said that Rajapaksa can stay in the country for 90 days because he is still a diplomatic passport holder.
However, Rajapaksa was not allowed to engage in political activities in Thailand. He was confined to a hotel and surrounded by security personnel.
Local media reports August 19 quoted Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam as saying that his party had requested the president to facilitate the former president’s return and “ensure security and necessary facilities”.
After Rajapaksa was ousted, Sri Lanka’s parliament elected then-Acting President and six-time former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new Head of State.
Wickremesinghe has a mandate to serve out the rest of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024.
Rajapaksa, an ex-military officer, became president in November 2019.
Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million, is going through its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 which was triggered by a severe paucity of foreign exchange reserves.
The IMF Thursday announced that it will provide Sri Lanka with a loan of about USD 2.9 billion over four years under a preliminary agreement to help the bankrupt island nation tide over its worst economic crisis and protect the livelihoods of the people.
The country is also expected to restructure its debt worth USD 29 billion, with Japan expected to coordinate with other creditor nations, including China on this issue.
In mid-April, Sri Lanka declared its international debt default due to the forex crisis. The country owes USD 51 billion in foreign debt, of which USD 28 billion must be paid by 2027.
There have been street protests in Sri Lanka against the government since early April due to its mishandling of the economic crisis.
A crippling shortage of foreign reserves has led to long queues for fuel, cooking gas, and other essentials while power cuts and soaring food prices have heaped misery on the people.