Sri Lanka’s ousted president Gotabaya returns

Former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives at the Bangkok's Don Mueang International airport, Thailand, August 11, 2022 | Photo: Tananchai Keawsowattana

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has returned from his self-exile in Thailand.

Rajapaksa fled from Sri Lanka to Maldives on July 13, 2022 via a military jet, after a people’s uprising over the country’s worst economic crisis in recent history brought his family’s powerful grip on the island nation to a choking end.

According to local sources in the country Rajapaksa was festooned with flowers by a welcoming party of ministers and politicians as he disembarked at the main international airport of Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa initially flew from Maldives to Singapore from where he sent in his resignation from before flying on to Thailand. He had petitioned his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe to facilitate his return while in Thailand.

Opposition politicians have accused Wickremesinghe of shielding the once-powerful Rajapaksa family. Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees bodyguards, a vehicle and housing for former presidents, including Gotabaya and his elder brother and fellow ex-president Mahinda.

Sri Lanka has endured months of shortages of crucial goods including food, fuel and medicines, along with lengthy electricity blackouts and skyrocketing inflation after running out of foreign currency to finance essential imports.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a hammer blow to the island’s tourism industry and dried up remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad – both key foreign exchange earners.

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 government was accused of introducing unsustainable tax cuts that drove up government debt and exacerbated the crisis.

Wickremesinghe was elected by parliament to see out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term. He has since cracked down on street protests and arrested leading activists.

The government defaulted on its US$51 billion foreign debt in April, and the central bank forecasts a record 8 per cent gross domestic product contraction this year. After months of negotiations, the International Monetary Fund agreed on Thursday to a conditional US$2.9 billion bailout package to repair Sri Lanka’s battered finances.

In the past few weeks, the government has streamlined fuel supplies with a pass – only registered vehicles with a QR code can buy fuel at petrol stations. But fuel is still in demand with queues outside some filling stations. Key food items are available in shops, but prices are high as inflation is hovering around 65%.