In response to critics, the Singapore Foreign Ministry set the record straight, emphasizing that Rajapaksa had been granted entry on a private visit and not as a political asylum seeker.
By Ivan Lim
The unexpected arrival in Singapore of former Sri Lankan strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, on July 1, has caused anger among some people in the Republic and raised inconvenient questions for the authorities here.
Critics, overlooking the fact that he tendered his resignation the following day, raised queries whether it was right for the Republic to offer what they described as “sanctuary” to a disgraced leader.
Once hailed as the heroic “Terminator” for his success in crushing the Tamil Tigers’ long drawn-out insurrection in mid-2009, he reportedly sat down in a downtown café to pen his resignation soon after entering Singapore.
As the Straits Times (ST) associate editor Ravi Velloo put it, “the now-historic piece of paper” that ended Sri Lanka’s eighth presidency was addressed to the Speaker of Parliament, put in a sealed cover, and swiftly taken back to Changi Airport to be delivered to Colombo on a late evening Singapore Airlines flight.
In his letter, Mr. Rajapaksa sought to defend himself, saying: “It is my personal belief that I took all possible steps to address this crisis, including inviting parliamentarians to form an all-party or unity government”. He claimed that the financial crisis arose from years of economic neglect that pre-dated his presidency and was aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the tourism numbers and overseas citizens’ remittances.
The letter was to pave the way for the Sri Lanka Parliament to elect a new head of state on July 20 and set about ending the political turmoil and repairing the bankrupt economy.
Protesters in Colombo denounced his escape and called for his return to account for his alleged corruption and mismanagement that caused Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown, leaving citizens without food, medicine, electricity and fuel.
In response to critics, the Foreign Ministry here set the record straight, emphasizing that Mr. Rajapaksa had been granted entry on a private visit and not as a political asylum seeker.
”Most political leaders of significant countries have had charges levelled against them at one point or another. If Singapore we to allow only people of impeccable reputations to come here, we would not be able let anyone in,” former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan told The Sunday Times newspaper.
However, this did not stop the People’s Voice (PV) opposition party from holding a rally, titled Deport former Sri Lankan President, at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park on July 16 to protest against the self-exiled Sri Lankan politician’s presence.
In his speech, PV rally organizer Prabu Ramachandran, said: “He is unwanted. He is a politically exposed person. Unlike what has been said, he is not just another Sri Lankan with a passport.
“Why are we taking him in?”
Suggesting they believed Mr. Rajapaksa came to the city-state because of his assets here, Mr. Prabu,34, who is in the finance industry, and fellow PV speaker and financial expert Mr. Leong Sze Hian, 68, asked for Mr. Rajapaksa’s bank accounts here to be made public.
In a related move, block chain businessman Raymond Ng said he had filed a police report in Singapore against Mr. Rajapaksa for what he alleged as involvement in money laundering. He created a Change.org petition, following Mr. Rajapaksa’s arrival in Singapore, which many have signed.
Singapore as a safe haven owing to its law and order is a factor for the Sri Lankan leader choosing Singapore for his temporary shelter before moving on.
In a statement, the Singapore Police served notice that it would act against those who hold any protest without permit. The Speakers’ Corner is the only place for Singaporeans to hold rallies without a police permit.
As he seeks refuge overseas, Mr. Rajapaksa’s alleged role in the brutal suppression and killing of Tamil Tigers, including targeting of civilians, has come to haunt him.
“He has blood on his hands,” said a Singapore man who spoke privately about his unhappiness about his presence in Singapore. “It is karma and he has to be to pay for his evil deeds.”
Mr. Rajapaksa flew to the city-state on a Saudi Arabia airline from Maldives, his first destination after leaving Colombo on a military flight. In the capital Male, he had encountered demonstrations.
He was last in Singapore in December 2021, for a medical check-up in a follow-up for his heart bypass operation at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in May 2019.
Analysts believe the ousted Sri Lanka leader will seek to remain in Singapore to watch how the political situation pans out in his country. As the ST’s Ravi Velloo noted, Mr. Rajapaksa might have no chance of regaining power. Still, he might “be able to negotiate the terms of his return with the new leadership of Sri Lanka.”
The election on Wednesday of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, as the new President on the strength of the ruling Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), could offer hope. But there has been no let-up in protests against Mr. Wickremesinghe, a sole member of the United National Party, who had been appointed Prime Minister by then-President Rajapaksa, and seen by his detractors as a stand-in for his predecessor. With a unity government behind him, Mr. Wickremesinghe has ordered a crackdown on violent demonstrators and restore order. However, a quick end to the political turmoil seems not in sight.
Looks like the ousted Sri Lanka president’s Singapore interlude might be stretched, as long as it does not pose any political liability to his hosts.
Ivan Lim is a senior journalist of Singapore and former President of South Korea-based Asia Journalists Association.