Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to Sri Lanka on August 24, his cousin Udayanga Weeratunga said on Wednesday, over a month after the former president fled the country amid mass anti-government protests over an unprecedented economic crisis.
Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is grappling with its worst economic turmoil in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials. The massive protests that began in March culminated with Rajapaksa’s resignation.
”He talked to me on the phone, I can tell you he will return to the country next week,” said Weeratunga, who was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia from 2006 to 2015.
Rajapaksa could return on August 24, he said, adding that the ousted president should not be re-elected for political positions.
“But he can still do some service to the country as he had done previously,” Weeratunga said of the 73-year-old former Sri Lankan president.
Rajapaksa is currently staying at a hotel in Bangkok in the heart of Thailand’s capital, where police have advised him to remain indoors for security reasons.
Rajapaksa arrived in Thailand from Singapore on August 11 on a charter flight for a temporary stay before seeking permanent asylum in another country. He arrived in Bangkok on the same day that his visa in Singapore expired.
A day earlier, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had confirmed a temporary visit to Thailand by the 73-year-old embattled Sri Lankan leader for humanitarian reasons, and said he promised not to conduct political activities in the kingdom during his search for permanent asylum in another country.
The Sri Lankan government had directly appealed on behalf of the ousted President and sought permission to allow him to seek temporary shelter in Thailand.
After fleeing to the Maldives from Sri Lanka on July 13, Rajapaksa then flew to Singapore, where he announced his resignation as the president a day later after months of protests over Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis.
A report earlier in the Daily Mirror newspaper had said Rajapaksa will return to Sri Lanka in November after his 90-day Thai visa runs out.
The anti-government protesters accused the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lanka’s political scene for nearly two decades, of plunging the country into the worst economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1948 through mismanagement and corruption.
The country, with an acute foreign currency crisis that resulted in foreign debt default, had announced in April that it is suspending nearly USD 7 billion foreign debt repayment due for this year out of about USD 25 billion due through 2026. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt stands at USD 51 billion.
The United Nations has warned that 5.7 million people “require immediate humanitarian assistance,” with Sri Lankans experiencing extreme shortages of essentials including food, fuel and medicines.
The new Sri Lankan government led by Rajapaksa’s ally President Ranil Wickremesinghe faces the task of leading the country out of its economic collapse and restoring order. Sri Lanka has seen months of mass unrest over the worst economic crisis, with the government declaring bankruptcy in mid-April by refusing to honour its international debt.