Ousted strongman president Gotabaya Rajapaksa set for return to Sri Lanka

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa is poised to return to Sri Lanka, nearly two months after the ousted president fled the cash-strapped nation following an anti-government uprising and full-scale occupation of his home by protesters.

Mr Rajapaksa, 73, who is currently in Thailand, is expected to return to Colombo on Saturday, a source close to him told the Daily Mirror newspaper.

In another boost to the Rajapaksa family, the former president’s brother Basil, who was serving as the country’s finance minister when the crisis occurred, has been given permission to travel overseas up to 15 January next year by the country’s Supreme Court.

The younger Rajapaksa brother had been turned back from Colombo airport just a day before his brother had fled the country with his wife and two bodyguards on 13 July amid massive protests.

Sri Lanka has been reeling under the worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, forcing its 22 million population to struggle with a shortage of necessities such as food, fuel and essential medicines.

After months of street protests demanding Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation due to poor handling of the country’s finances, the disgraced former president left for the Maldives before landing in Singapore on a “private visit”.

He formally resigned from office on 14 July, marking the end of 20 years of Rajapaksa rule.

In his resignation letter to the speaker, the self-exiled strongman claimed he took “all possible steps” to avoid the crippling financial situation, while blaming the Covid pandemic and past economic mismanagement for the crisis.

The former leader then took a private jet from Singapore to Bangkok on 11 August, where he was advised by authorities to not leave his hotel for “security reasons”.

Mr Rajapaksa’s potential return has been facilitated by incumbent president Ranil Wickremesinghe, seen as his political ally, after a request from the former leader’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party.

The government has agreed to provide the former president with a house in Colombo, sources told Bloomberg.

Last month, Mr Wickremesinghe said it was not the right time for Mr Rajapaksa’s homecoming and that he had no “indication of him returning soon”.

The ousted leader’s lawyers in Washington have reportedly commenced the procedure of application for securing him a Green Card. He is eligible to apply for citizenship as his wife Ioma Rajapaksa is a US citizen.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Thursday announced it has agreed to help the island nation with a $2.9bn bailout package to stabilise the economy.

The Washington-based lender said it has reached a staff-level agreement to support the country’s economic policies with a 48-month arrangement. It asked the Wickremesinghe government to move forward “expeditiously” to secure debt relief from its creditors to ensure debt sustainability.

The bailout agreement comes after Sri Lanka, for the first time in history, defaulted on its foreign debts in May. The nation’s total foreign debt stands at $51bn.

The IMF’s announcement prompted Japan to urge all creditor nations “including China and India, to gather to discuss Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring,” according to a statement from Japanese finance minister Shunichi Suzuki.

Sri Lanka’s economy is expected to contract by 8.7 per cent in 2022.