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Home > 2022 > Lanka : as Gotabaya returns… | Apratim Mukarji

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 38 September 10, 2022

Lanka : as Gotabaya returns… | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 9 September 2022, by Apratim Mukarji

Two newspaper headlines define Sri Lanka as it was on the 10th of July 2022 that an Indian newspaper The Sunday Express headlined the previous day’s story as “Colombo Overthrow.” The 4 September 2022 edition of the same newspaper captioned its story as “Gotabaya gets special security and bungalow on return to Colombo.”

The first story related to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s great flight to escape the raging public on Colombo streets. The second story descibed how Gotabaya, the first ever president who fled in fear after the scandal of his maladministration of the economy had broken the people’s patience and forced them to demonstrate day after day on Colombo streets to demand punishment for the recalcitrant head of state and government.

However, this was not the real story. The real story was being woven by Gotabaya and his loyal party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is also the largest party represented in Parliament. Gotabaya could safely flee out of the country thanks to the “loyal” President Ranil Wickremasinghe and the loyal Sri Lnkan Air Force which flew him out, first to the Maldives, then onto Singapore, and then further on to Thailand, and finally arrived in Sri Lanka.

A PTI report on his return said he was welcomed by a jubilant party of ministers and party members. He was festooned with flowers by the ministers and politicians present at the airport. Considering the fact he was not exactly popular with the people, the government decided to accord him accomodation in a state-maintained bungalow in a posh south Colombo locality, rejecting his own desire to move into his personal residence in Nugegoda, a south of Colombo resort.

However, his decision to return to Colombo, which was no doubt influenced by what the government was telling him in the meantime, saw him getting quickly into trouble. All retired presidents in Sri Lanka are constitutionally immune from prosecution; but this would not hold In Gotabaya’s instance. Because, his flight from justice and the fact that he resigned only after he fled the country has barred him fro m enjoying the constitutional immunity that as a president he should have normally enjoyed.

He is also a fugitive from justice because he fled at a time when a court summons was about to be served on him in a case of forced disappearance of two young political activists. These two incidents occurred in 2010 when Gotabaya was a powerful defence official under the presidentship of his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Except these two cases, Gotabaya has no court case pending against him. There was a case of graft charge against him which was withdrawn after he won the presidential election in 2019. Normally, as a past president, he would have been constituitionlly protected but he enjoys no such immunity now that he is back in the country and he has no constitutional protection any more.

The manner in which the present Sri Lankan government and especially President Wickremasinghe had taken steps make it clear that they were very anxious to help him return to the country as soon as possible. The expectation was that in the meantime, the government would be able to straighten out the economic problems and ease the availability of fuels and other essentials like medicines and foodstuffs.

The International Monetry Fund’s initial $ 2.9 billion aid package which was worked out between the government and the IMF must have been a satisfying experienec for the battered government. The Sri Lankans also appeared to have returned home to pursue their own interests, though shortages of fuels like kerosene, medicines, and rice and various vegetables continue to plague the country.

Sometime back, President Wickresinghe expressed his opionion that the people were no longer interested to going back to street protests. But, that was principally because their bete noire Gotabaya Rajapaksa was no longer in the immediate environment. Now that he is back in the country, this situation does no longer exist. Besides, hie great welcome at the airport, the obvious show of support by the government and the ruling party, all go to add to the impression that the powerful people are keen to provide him with a long-lasting protection.

As a matter of fact, some ruling party members expressed their desire that their leader shoud return to politics as soon as he is ready to do so. This might prove to be adding fuel to the fire. There is no reason to fancy that all popular opposition to him as the country’s former president responsible for the people’s travails over a lo9ng period of over two years had vanished in general apathy.

The lawyer represening the families of the two disappeared political activists said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be served a summons to appear before the Supreme Court in a week’s time. Once this happens and the news gets television and print media space, the people’s memories would no doubt be rekindled; and then if activists join a popular agitation for meting out justice t Gotabaya, things may get out of hands for the President and the ruling party.

All these possibilities lie right now in the realm of speculation. But the coming weeks and the behaviour of the former president will determine the course of action for the country.

(Author: Apratim Mukarfji is an analyst of the South and Central Asian affairs)

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