Conflicts & War

Ex-president Rajapaksa’s return stuns Sri Lanka

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Sep 3 (EFE) .- Sri Lanka woke up this Saturday with former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa back on the island after nearly two months of self-exile abroad, a news which came as a shock to many after they managed to oust the leader through massive demonstrations over his handling of the severe economic crisis.

Rajapaksa arrived from Thailand at Colombo’s Bhandarnaike International Airport shortly before midnight, where he was received by ministers Tiran Alles and Prasanna Ranatunga, and several supporters of his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

The SLPP had asked Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to ensure the security of the former president upon his return and he complied: a long convoy of security vehicles with sirens wailing transferred Rajapaksa from the airport to his residence cum office in Colombo.

“His return is like a slap in the face for us. There is still resistance within the public against him. We knew that ultimately, he had to return home, but he was able to come back this way because of Ranil (Wickremesinghe),” Chanu Nimesha, a leading figure of the anti-Rajapaksa protests, told EFE.

Nimesha was one of the thousands of protesters who camped for more than 120 days outside the presidential residence to force the resignation of the ex-president and other members of his clan due to the economic crisis which has seen the island suffer a severe shortage of fuel and other basic necessities such as medicine.

However, the return of the former president – who had fled to Maldives on Jul. 13 and subsequently taken refuge in Thailand – has not resulted in spontaneous protests as predicted by some activists, who have demanded that Rajapaksa be tried in Sri Lanka for leading the country into bankruptcy.

There is palpable fear among the protesters, many of whom accuse current president Wickremesinghe of carrying out a “witch hunt” of activists, with thousands of arrests among protesters who had camped outside the presidential palace.

“They (the police) are hunting for us. I am really exhausted of having to watch my back all the time. Even when I get a phone call I think twice before answering,” said Nimesha, who predicted that the situation could become volatile due to food prices skyrocketing.

“When that happens, I’m afraid things will get violent,” she warned.

Sri Lanka, which had defaulted on its foreign debt and requires billions of dollars to meet its domestic and international commitments, urgently requires a cash flow to cover basic needs such as fuel, medicine, or food.

Inflation in the island nation touched 64.3 percent in August, while year-on-year food inflation rose to 93.7 percent, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s return comes after on Thursday the International Monetary Fund announced that it had reached a preliminary agreement with Sri Lanka on a bailout package worth $2.9 billion that will allow the country to restore fiscal balance.

However, the IMF has warned that the political environment on the island was key to obtaining the necessary loans and get out of the crisis, while expressing hope that the restored stability will continue and help authorities carry out “difficult economic reforms.” “.

What remains to be seen now is whether Rajapaksa, dubbed “terminator” for his role in the civil war against Tamil rebels, will return to politics, although sources close to the former president assured EFE that he has no intention of returning. .

“He never did have any interest in politics. But when the 2019 presidential elections came, the SLPP needed a candidate that could win votes, so he naturally was selected to run for presidency,” the source told EFE on the condition of anonymity.

In 2020, the former military chief had registered a landslide victory on a security plank, months after Islamist terror attacks on luxury hotels and churches killed at least 269 people and wounded over 400.

But the nation’s mood changed with the economic crisis that began soon after the attacks, which negatively affected Sri Lanka’s important tourism sector, and was aggravated by the pandemic and finally the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Blunders by Rajapaksa, such as banning fertilizers to boost organic farming and reducing import dependency, made the situation worse.

Madhuka Thushari, a 34-year-old woman who lives in Ratnapura, in the southern province of Sabaragamuwa, was livid after getting to know that the former president had returned to the country.

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