Sri Lanka’s ousted former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, returned to the country on Friday, seven weeks after fleeing the worst economic crisis the island has ever seen, an airport official said.
The official added that Rajapaksa was decorated with flowers at the welcome party of ministers and politicians as he disembarked at the main international airport, a sign of his enduring influence in the Indian Ocean nation, which critics say has contributed to the devastation.
“When he got off the plane, government politicians scrambled to put a wreath on him,” the official told AFP.
Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka under an army escort in mid-July after unarmed crowds stormed his official residence after months of angry demonstrations blamed him on the country’s unprecedented economic crisis.
He handed in his resignation from Singapore before flying to Thailand, from where he asked his successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to help him return to Thailand.
The 73-year-old leader arrived on a commercial flight from Bangkok via Singapore, ending his 52-day self-imposed exile.
“He had been staying in a hotel in Thailand as a virtual prisoner and was eager to return,” a defence official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“We have just created a new security unit to protect him when he returns,” the official added.
“The unit includes members of the army and police commandos.”
Opposition politicians have accused Wickremesinghe of protecting the once powerful Rajapaksa family.
Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees bodyguards, vehicles and housing for former presidents, including Gotabaya and his older brother, as well as former president Mahinda.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation ends his presidential immunity, and rights activists say they will seek his arrest on multiple charges, including his alleged 2009 assassination of prominent newspaper editor LaSanta Wakeley Lasantha Wickrematunge’s role.
“We welcome his decision to return so that we can bring the crimes he committed to justice,” said Tharindu Jayawardhana, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association.
Rajapaksa also faces charges in a California court over Wickrematunge’s murder and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island’s traumatic civil war in 2009.
– Tight Security –
Singapore refused to extend the short-term visa of Rajapaksa, who travelled to Thailand in August, but was instructed by Bangkok authorities not to leave the hotel for his own safety.
Rajapaksa’s youngest brother, former finance minister Basil, met with Wickremesinghe last month and asked for protection to allow the ousted leader to return.
Police deployed plainclothes officers and armed guards outside a government residence in Rajapaksa, Colombo, on Friday.
Security at his private home has also been enhanced, officials said, adding that he is expected to visit the family home first.
Sri Lanka has experienced months of shortages of key commodities including food, fuel and medicines, as well as prolonged power outages and soaring inflation after it ran out of foreign currency to fund basic imports.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the island’s tourism industry hard and has dried up remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad – who are the main source of foreign exchange earnings.
Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019 promising “vistas of prosperity and splendour”, saw his popularity nosedive as hardships multiplied for the country’s 22 million people.
His administration has been accused of unsustainable tax cuts, pushing up government debt and exacerbating the crisis.
Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament for the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term. He has since cracked down on street protests and arrested key activists.
The government defaulted on $51 billion in foreign debt in April, and the central bank forecast a record 8 percent contraction in GDP this year.
After months of negotiations, the International Monetary Fund agreed on Thursday to a conditional $2.9 billion rescue package to repair Sri Lanka’s battered finances.
(Apart from the title, this story was unedited by NDTV staff and was posted from a syndicated feed.)