A billboard announces the return of ousted former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who ended his self-imposed exile in Thailand and came back to the island on September 4. Photo: Amal Jayasinghe / AFP
Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who hastily fled his country as protesters took over his mansion less than two months ago, has returned.
On Saturday, Rajapaksa ended weeks of speculation around his return, and was greeted at the same international airport where he had struggled to get his passport stamped when he was trying to flee the country in July. This time, he was welcomed with flowers by a group of ministers, a massive motorcade, and giant billboards announcing, “I’m back.”
Sri Lankan officials told the media that he has been provided with an official residence, a special security detail and other privileges usually accorded to the country’s former presidents. Local media reported a state-owned bungalow in the capital city Colombo reserved for him, which will be guarded with a large security contingent.
Rajapaksa’s return has reignited fury among activists and protesters who had carried out one of the country’s largest anti-government protests in recent times.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans accused the 73-year-old politician of running the country’s economy to the ground with not just bad policies, but also large-scale corruption. That was on top of Rajapaksa’s alleged war crimes against the Tamil ethnic minority during the country’s 27-year civil war that ended in 2009. He was the defence chief at the time.
On July 13, protesters stormed his mansion in Colombo but Rajapaksa and his wife Ioma fled the country hours beforehand. Since then, the couple had been spending time in the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand on temporary visitor visas. After Rajapaksa’s exit, politician Ranil Wickremesinghe became the country’s new president, who immediately launched a violent crackdown on protesters. Critics accuse him of protecting the Rajapaksa family.
Some members of Rajapaksa’s party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna are keen to offer him a seat in the parliament. Politician Anuradha Jayaratne told the media that they would urge Rajapaksa to get “involved with the next generation so he can share his experiences with them.”
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