He has yet to explain why he has visited three Asian countries in recent weeks amid economic and political turmoil at home – or why he has decided to return now.
Some activists are now asking Rajapaksa to face criminal charges, but with his allies remaining in power, analysts say any prosecution is unlikely. And it remains unclear whether his return to the island nation of 22 million will spark further protests.
After temporary stints in the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand, Rajapaksa may have run out of countries willing to let him in or stay, analysts said.
The fall of the ousted leader “would have been a blow to his ego”, said Ambika Satkunanathan, a lawyer and former commissioner of the country’s Human Rights Commission.
“It was very difficult for him to find permanent or semi-permanent accommodation. It turned out to be more difficult than he imagined,” she said. “He was a politician who was once seen as a demigod. He’s not used to being held accountable.”
Moving from one country to another
Rajapaksa’s first stopover was Malé, the Maldivian capital just a 90 minute flight from Colombo.
His plane was initially denied permission to land until former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, now Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, intervened, according to a senior security official.
“Throw it here,” read a sign from the protesters. “Dear Maldivian friends, please urge your government not to protect criminals,” reads another.
Singapore’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on July 14 that Rajapaksa had been permitted to enter the island city-state for a “private visit”.
“He did not apply for asylum and neither was he granted asylum,” the Singaporean foreign ministry said at the time.
Several news agencies reported that Rajapaksa would visit Saudi Arabia next – but that visit never materialized.
Rajapaksa later reversed the policy, but implemented another controversial rule requiring Muslim victims to be buried at a remote government site, without their families and without performing final religious rites.
From Singapore, Rajapaksa formally tendered his resignation as ruler of Sri Lanka.
He later found himself under potential criminal investigation in the city-state for allegations of human rights abuses while serving as defense chief during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. – allegations he denies.
On July 23, lawyers from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General of Singapore, asking for Rajapaksa’s immediate arrest.
A spokesperson for the Singapore Attorney General’s Office confirmed to CNN that they had received the ITJP’s complaint, but declined to comment further.
ITJP executive director Yasmin Sooka Sooka said the filing of a complaint in Singapore was “incredibly symbolic” as it “demonstrated that once Gotabaya lost his ex officio immunity, he is a equal before the law”.
His diplomatic passport allowed him to enter the country without a visa for up to 90 days, according to a spokesperson for the Thai Foreign Ministry. The ousted leader’s stay was temporary and he was not seeking political asylum, the spokesman added.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha cited “humanitarian” grounds for allowing Rajapaksa to enter Thailand, but said the former president had been advised to keep a low profile.
At home in Sri Lanka, pressure was mounting from the former leader’s supporters on new president Ranil Wickremesinghe – an ally of Rajapaksa – to allow him to return safely.
On August 19, Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa, a former finance minister, asked for protection to allow his return, according to a statement from the Sri Lankan political party Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which has an overwhelming majority in parliament. .
“The main demand of the SLPP is the safety and security of the former president,” the statement said.
What happens now?
Sri Lanka took a step towards economic stabilization on Thursday, reaching an interim agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $2.9 billion loan.
The four-year program would aim to restore stability to a nation that has been plagued by crippling shortages of food, fuel and medicine by boosting government revenue and rebuilding foreign exchange reserves.
But with the IMF yet to approve the loan, Sri Lanka faces a long road to economic recovery and analysts say it is unclear whether Rajapaksa’s arrival will inflame the situation again. in the country.
“There is definitely an element of fear,” said Satkunanathan, the human rights lawyer. “It’s hard to say if there will be further protests. But of course the cost of living remains high and inflation is mounting.”
And while millions of people in the country cannot afford food or fuel, Rajapaksa’s comfortable lifestyle upon his return threatens to escalate the situation again.
“That’s what brings my people to the streets. They’re so angry at this hypocrisy,” Satkunanathan said.
According to ITJP’s Sooka, it is also “unlikely” that the former leader will be investigated over war crimes allegations.
“The political class will protect him, and despite his flight, the structures and loyalties he relied on are still intact,” she said, adding that the protest movement was “broken, scared and fragmented from the ‘interior’.
“There is still hope that a fearless civil society group would ask the court to open a case against him and that the attorney general and the police would support such action,” she added.
“Impunity must not be tolerated. Dealing with Gota will show the world and Sri Lanka that no one is above the law.”
CNN’s Kocha Olarn and Iqbal Athas contributed reporting.