He fled the country and went into hiding. Why has the deposed leader of Sri Lanka come back now?


He has yet to explain why he traveled to three Asian countries in recent weeks amid economic and political turmoil at home — or why he decided to come back now.

some activists Now demanding that Rajapaksa face criminal charges, but with his allies remaining in power, analysts say prosecution is unlikely. And it remains unclear whether his return to the island nation of 22 million will spark further demonstrations.

After a temporary stay in the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand, Rajapaksa may not have any countries willing to let him in or stay, analysts said.

And according to a source quoted by Reuters by August 23, the cost of maintaining his lifestyle abroad — including a private jet, presidential suite, and security — had already reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Rajapaksa’s widespread unpopularity in Sri Lanka is a major turning point from the time when many in the country revered him as a “warrior-king” leader for defeating separatists in a decades-long civil war.

The demise of the deposed leader “would have been a huge 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 residence. It turned out to be more difficult than he imagined,” she said. “This was a politician who was once seen as a demigod. He’s not used to being held accountable.”

Moving from country to country

Rajapaksa’s first stop 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, a senior security official said.

But the Sri Lankans in Male weren’t happy — much took to the streets to protest his arrival.

“Throw it out of here,” read one protester’s sign. “Dear Maldivian friends, 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 was allowed to enter the city-state on the island on a “private visit”.

“He has not applied for asylum and has not been granted asylum,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said at the time.

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Multiple news organizations reported that Rajapaksa would then travel to Saudi Arabia, but that visit never materialized.

It’s unclear why, although some analysts pointed to a possible reason in a heavily criticized Rajapaksa policy of 2020 requiring Muslim victims of Covid-19 to be cremated.
The practice was “inconsistent with Islamic precepts,” said a pronunciation in December of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), of which Saudi Arabia is a member. The OIC expressed concern and called for “respect for the funeral ritual in the Muslim faith”.

Rajapaksa then reversed the policy but introduced another controversial rule requiring Muslim victims to be buried in a secluded place from the government, without their families and without performing any final religious rites.

From Singapore, Rajapaksa has officially resigned as leader of Sri Lanka.

He then found himself on the receiving end of a possible criminal investigation in the city-state for alleged human rights violations while serving as chief of defense 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 Singapore Attorney General, requesting Rajapaksa’s immediate arrest.

According to a 2011 United Nations report, Sri Lankan government forces were responsible for abuses, including the deliberate shooting of civilians, summary executions, rapes and blocking of food and medicine from reaching the affected communities. The UN report said, “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths.”

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

ITJP director Yasmin Sooka Sooka said filing a claim in Singapore was “incredibly symbolic” as it “showed that once Gotabaya lost his immunity, he is equal before the law.”

On August 11, Rajapaksa left Singapore for Thailand on a private jet.
Former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 11, 2022.

His diplomatic passport gave him the right to enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days, a spokesman for Thailand’s foreign ministry said. The deposed leader’s stay was temporary and he did not seek political asylum, the spokesman added.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha cited “humanitarian” reasons for letting Rajapaksa into Thailand, but said the former president had been advised to keep quiet.

“The promise has been made that he will stay here temporarily. No visit, no meeting and no movement whatsoever,” Prayut said. told reporters on August 10.

Back home in Sri Lanka, pressure from the former leader’s supporters mounted 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 enable his return, according to a statement by the Sri Lankan political party Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which has an overwhelming majority in parliament.

“The main requirement 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.

What happens now?

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

The four-year program would aim to restore stability to a country plagued by crippling food, fuel and medicine shortages by increasing government revenues and rebuilding foreign reserves.

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

Police officers stand behind the security barricade at 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 have been jailed for damaging public property, among other alleged offences. condemned by rights groups and opposition politicians.

“There is definitely an element of fear,” said Satkunanathan, the human rights lawyer. “It’s hard to say if there will be more protests. But of course the cost of living remains high and inflation is escalating.”

And while millions in the country can’t afford food or fuel, Rajapaksa’s comfortable lifestyle threatens to reignite the situation on his return.

“That’s what puts my people on the street. They get so mad 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

Sooka of the ITJP also said it is “unlikely” that the former leader will be investigated on charges of war crimes.

“The political class will protect him, and despite him fleeing, the structures and loyalties he relied on are still intact,” she said, adding that the protest movement is “broken, scared and fragmented from within.”

“There is always hope that a fearless civil society group would request the court to open a case against him and that the Attorney General and the police would support such action,” she added.

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

CNN’s Kocha Olarn and Iqbal Athas reported.

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