Return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa: Why has Sri Lanka’s ousted leader returned now?




CNN

After more than 50 days, he’s back.

The fugitive former Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, returned to Colombo early on Saturday, Sri Lankan airport and security officials confirmed. This decision threatens to rekindle tensions in the country affected by the crisis.

Rajapaksa, who once ruled Sri Lanka with an iron fist, has kept a low profile since his hasty flight to the Maldives on July 13, just days after angry protesters stormed his official residence demanding his resignation. for handling the country’s worst financial crisis in decades. .

He has yet to explain why he has visited three Asian countries in recent weeks amid economic and political turmoil at home – or why he has decided to return now.

Some activists are now asking Rajapaksa to face criminal charges, but with his allies remaining in power, analysts say any prosecution is unlikely. And it remains unclear whether his return to the island nation of 22 million will spark further protests.

After temporary stints in the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand, Rajapaksa may have run out of countries willing to let him in or stay, analysts said.

And according to a source quoted by Reuters on August 23, the cost of maintaining his lifestyle abroad – including a private jet, a presidential suite and security – was already in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Rajapaksa’s widespread unpopularity in Sri Lanka is a major reversal from when many in the country revered him as a “warrior-king” leader for defeating separatists in a decades-long civil war.

The ousted leader’s downfall “would have been a blow to his ego”, said Ambika Satkunanathan, a lawyer and former commissioner of the country’s Human Rights Commission.

“It was very difficult for him to find permanent or semi-permanent accommodation. It turned out to be harder than he imagined,” she said. “He was a politician who was once seen as a demigod. He’s not used to being held accountable.

Rajapaksa’s first stopover was Malé, the Maldivian capital just a 90 minute flight from Colombo.

His plane was initially denied permission to land until former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed – now speaker of the Maldivian parliament – intervened, according to a senior security official.

But Sri Lankans in Male were not happy – many took to the streets to protest his arrival.

“Throw it here,” read a sign from the protesters. “Dear Maldivian friends, please urge your government not to protect criminals,” read another.

Less than 48 hours later, Rajapaksa left the archipelago on a Saudia flight to Singapore.

Singapore’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on July 14 that Rajapaksa had been permitted to enter the island city-state for a “private visit”.

“He did not apply for asylum and neither was he granted asylum,” the Singaporean foreign ministry said at the time.

Several news agencies reported that Rajapaksa would visit Saudi Arabia next – but that visit never materialized.

It’s unclear why, although some analysts have pointed to a possible reason in a heavily criticized 2020 Rajapaksa policy that required Muslim Covid-19 victims to be cremated.

The practice was “incompatible with Islamic precepts”, according to a statement issued in December by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which Saudi Arabia is a member. The OIC expressed its concern and called for “respect for the funeral ritual in the Muslim faith”.

Rajapaksa later reversed the policy, but implemented another controversial rule requiring Muslim victims to be buried at a remote government site, without their families and without performing final religious rites.

From Singapore, Rajapaksa formally tendered his resignation as ruler of Sri Lanka.

He later found himself under potential criminal investigation in the city-state for allegations of human rights abuses while serving as defense chief during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. – allegations he denies.

On July 23, lawyers from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General of Singapore, asking for Rajapaksa’s immediate arrest.

According to a 2011 United Nations report, Sri Lankan government troops were responsible for abuses, including intentional bombing of civilians, summary executions, rape, and preventing food and medicine from reaching affected communities. . According to the UN report, “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”

A spokesperson for the Singapore Attorney General’s Office confirmed to CNN that they had received the ITJP’s complaint, but declined to comment further.

ITJP executive director Yasmin Sooka Sooka said the filing of a complaint in Singapore was “incredibly symbolic” as it “demonstrated that once Gotabaya lost his ex officio immunity, he is a equal before the law”.

On August 11, Rajapaksa left Singapore for Thailand in a private jet.

Former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, August 11, 2022.

His diplomatic passport allowed him to enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days, according to a spokesperson for the Thai Foreign Ministry. The ousted leader’s stay was temporary and he was not seeking political asylum, the spokesman added.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha cited “humanitarian” grounds for allowing Rajapaksa to enter Thailand – but said the former president had been advised to keep a low profile.

“The promise was made that he would stay here temporarily. No visits, no meetings and no movement,” Prayut told reporters on August 10.

At home in Sri Lanka, pressure was mounting from the former leader’s supporters on new president Ranil Wickremesinghe – an ally of Rajapaksa – to allow him to return safely.

On August 19, Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa, a former finance minister, asked for protection to allow his return, according to a statement from the Sri Lankan political party Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which has an overwhelming majority in parliament. .

“The main demand of the SLPP is the safety and security of the former president,” the statement said.

People visit the official residence of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on July 12, 2022, after it was overrun by anti-government protesters on July 9.

Sri Lanka took a step towards economic stabilization on Thursday, reaching an interim agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $2.9 billion loan.

The four-year program would aim to restore stability to a nation that has been plagued by crippling shortages of food, fuel and medicine by boosting government revenue and rebuilding foreign exchange reserves.

But with the IMF yet to approve the loan, Sri Lanka faces a long road to economic recovery and analysts say it is unclear whether Rajapaksa’s arrival will inflame the situation again. in the country.

Policemen stand behind the security barricade near a protest camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 5, 2022.

Since Wickremesinghe was sworn in on July 21, protesters have been forcibly removed from protest sites by police and some jailed for damaging public property, among other alleged offenses – moves condemned by rights groups. rights and opposition politicians.

“There is definitely an element of fear,” said Satkunanathan, the human rights lawyer. “It is difficult to say whether there will be further demonstrations. But of course, the cost of living remains high and inflation escalates.

And while millions of people in the country cannot afford food or fuel, Rajapaksa’s comfortable lifestyle upon his return threatens to escalate the situation again.

“That’s what brings my people to the streets. They are so angry at this hypocrisy,” Satkunanathan said.

A protester prepares to leave the protest site near the president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 5, 2022.

According to ITJP’s Sooka, it is also “unlikely” that the former leader will be investigated over war crimes allegations.

“The political class will protect him, and despite his flight, the structures and loyalties he relied on are still intact,” she said, adding that the protest movement was “broken, scared and fragmented from the ‘interior’.

“There is still hope that a fearless civil society group would ask the court to open a case against him and that the attorney general and the police would support such action,” she added.

“Impunity must not be tolerated. Dealing with Gota will show the world and Sri Lanka that no one is above the law.

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