President Gotabaya Rajapakse, who was deposed from Sri Lanka, fled and returned to the country

Former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country in July, only to return seven weeks later after tens of thousands of protesters stormed his home and office in anger over the country’s economic crisis.

Rajapakse flew from Bangkok to Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport via Singapore at midnight on Friday. Greeted by lawmakers from his party, Rajapaksa left the airport under heavy security by armed soldiers and arrived at the state-owned home allocated to him as a former president in the center of the capital, Colombo.

On July 13, the ousted leader, his wife and two bodyguards left on an Air Force flight for the Maldives before flying to Singapore, where he officially resigned. Two weeks later he flew to Thailand.

There is no pending court case or arrest warrant against Rajapakse. The only court case he faced on corruption charges during his tenure as defense ministry secretary under his elder brother was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019 due to constitutional immunity.

For months, Sri Lanka has been in the grip of its worst economic crisis, which sparked extraordinary protests and unprecedented public fury that eventually forced Rajapaksa and his brother, the former prime minister, to step down. The bankrupt country’s situation has been worsened by global factors such as the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but many have blamed the once-ruling Rajapaksa family for grossly mismanaging the economy and plunging it into crisis.

The economic disruption has led to months of shortages of essential commodities like fuel, medicine and cooking gas due to severe shortage of foreign currency. Although cooking gas supplies have been restored with support from the World Bank, shortages of fuel, essential medicines and some food items continue.

The island nation has defaulted on almost $7 billion in foreign debt repayments due this year. The country’s total external debt is over $51 billion, of which $28 billion is due to be repaid by 2027.

On Tuesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over after Rajapaksa’s resignation, and his administration reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a $2.9 billion bailout package over four years.

Rajapakse, a former army officer, was elected on a promise to boost the country’s economy and bolster national security after the Islamic State-inspired bombings at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday 2019 that killed 270 people. Because laws at the time made dual citizens ineligible to hold political office.

During the country’s three-decade civil war, he was accused as a top security official of overseeing human rights abuses by the military along with now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent kingdom for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

In April, protesters began camping outside the president’s office in central Colombo and demanding Rajapaksa’s departure, chanting “Gotha, go home”, which quickly turned into a movement rally.

These demonstrations undermined the Rajapaksa family’s hold on politics. Before Rajapakse’s resignation, his elder brother stepped down as prime minister, and three close family members resigned from their cabinet posts.

However, the country’s new president, Wickremesinghe, has crushed the protests. His first act as leader included dismantling protest tents in the middle of the night and police forcibly removing demonstrators from the site and beating them.

“There is real fear among people who want to protest now,” said Bhavani Ponseksa, an independent think tank for alternative policies.

“Whether people will take to the streets again and protest remains to be seen, especially since there has been so much repression since Ranil Wickremesinghe came to power. “Many protesters have been arrested, so there is real fear,” he said.

Dayan Jayathilaka, a former diplomat and political analyst, said the ruling SLPP would welcome him back, but did not think his return would flood the streets again. “They’ll be sour – it’s too soon for him to come back,” he said.

Jayatilaka added, “There is no way that Gotabaya can be forgiven for his transgressions, but now he has more bitterness than public anger.”

For Nazli Hameem, an organizer who helped lead the protest movement, the former president’s return is not an issue “as long as he is held accountable.”

“He is a Sri Lankan citizen, so nobody can stop him from coming back. But as someone who wants justice against the corrupt system, I want to take action – there should be justice, they should file cases against him and he should be held accountable for what he has done to the country.

“Our slogan was ‘Gotha, go home’ – we didn’t expect him to run away, we wanted him to resign. As long as he doesn’t get involved in serious politics, it’s not a problem,” he said.

Read | The International Monetary Fund has agreed to a $2.9 billion bailout for crisis-hit Sri Lanka

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