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Bankrupt Sri Lanka's deposed president 'to return home'

Bankrupt Sri Lanka's deposed president 'to return home'
September 2, 2022 Web Desk

COLOMBO (AFP) - Bankrupt Sri Lanka's deposed former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to end his self-imposed exile in Thailand and return home imminently, authorities told AFP on Friday.

The 73-year-old fled the island under military escort in July after unarmed crowds stormed his official residence, following months of angry demonstrations blaming him for the nation's unprecedented economic crisis.

He issued his resignation in Singapore before flying onward to Bangkok, from where he has been petitioning his successor to facilitate his return, now slated for late Friday evening or early Saturday.

"He has been living in a Thai hotel as a virtual prisoner and was keen to return," a defence official, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"We have just created a new security division to protect him after his return," the official added. "The unit comprises elements from the army and police commandos."

Sri Lanka's constitution guarantees bodyguards, a vehicle and housing for former presidents.

Rights activists said they would press for Rajapaksa's arrest over a series of crimes, including his alleged role in the 2009 assassination of prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

"We welcome his decision to return so that we can bring him to justice for the crimes he has committed," said Tharindu Jayawardhana, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Young Journalists' Association.

Rajapaksa's resignation ended his presidential immunity, which could see the revival of stalled criminal cases against the former leader.

He also faces charges in a California court over Wickrematunge's murder and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island's traumatic civil war in 2009.

Singapore declined to extend Rajapaksa's short-term visa and he travelled to Thailand in August, but authorities in Bangkok instructed him not to step out of his hotel for his own safety.

Rajapaksa's youngest brother, Basil, the former finance minister, met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe last month and requested protection to allow for the deposed leader's return.

Police deployed plainclothes officers and armed guards outside a government residence allocated to Rajapaksa in Colombo on Friday. Security at his private home was also stepped up, officials said.

Police at Colombo's main airport said a security operation was underway to prepare for his arrival.

"What we are told is that he will fly commercial," an airport official told AFP. "If it is on schedule, the aircraft should land just before midnight."

'Vistas of prosperity' 

Sri Lanka has endured months of acute food, fuel and medicine shortages, lengthy blackouts and runaway inflation after running out of foreign currency to finance essential imports.

The coronavirus 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 $51 billion foreign debt in April and the central bank forecasts a record eight percent GDP contraction this year. After months of negotiations, the International Monetary Fund agreed on Thursday to a conditional $2.9 billion bailout package to repair the nation's battered finances.

But the bailout still requires ratification from the lender's board and a deal with creditors to restructure Sri Lanka's debt. China -- Sri Lanka's biggest bilateral lender, accounting for more than 10 percent of borrowings -- has so far not publicly shifted from its offer of issuing more loans instead of taking a haircut on outstanding debt.

Wickremesinghe's administration has raised fuel and electricity prices more than threefold and removed energy subsidies to meet preconditions of the IMF bailout, with more tax hikes announced this week.