Sri Lanka’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country in July after tens of thousands of protesters stormed his home and office in a display of anger over the country’s economic crisis, has returned to the country after seven weeks.
Rajapaksa flew into Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport around midnight Friday from Bangkok via Singapore. On July 13, the ousted leader, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard an air force plane for the Maldives, before traveling to Singapore from where he officially resigned. He flew to Thailand two weeks later.
For months, Sri Lanka has been in the grips of an extreme economic crisis, which triggered extraordinary protests and unprecedented public rage that ultimately forced Rajapaksa and his brother, the former prime minister, to step down. The situation in the bankrupt country was made worse by global factors like the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but many hold the once-powerful Rajapaksa family as responsible for severely mismanaging the economy and tipping it into crisis.
The economic meltdown has seen months-long shortages of essentials such as fuel, medicine and cooking gas due to a severe shortage of foreign currency. Though cooking gas supplies were restored through World Bank support, fuel, critical medicines and some food items continue to be scarce.
The island nation has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion US in foreign debt due this year. The country’s total foreign debt amounts to more than $51 billion US, of which $28 billion US has to be repaid by 2027.
On Tuesday, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over after Rajapaksa resigned, and his administration reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9 billion US bailout package over four years to help the country recover.
In April, protesters started camping outside the president’s office in the heart of Colombo and chanted “Gota, go home,” a demand for Rajapaksa to quit, which quickly became the rallying cry of the movement.
The demonstrations dismantled the Rajapaksa family’s grip on politics. Before Rajapaksa resigned, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three more close family members quit their cabinet positions.
But the country’s new president, Wickremesinghe, has since cracked down on protests. His first action as leader included dismantling protesters’ tents in the middle of the night as police forcibly removed demonstrators from outside the president’s office, and attacked them.