COLOMBO – Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is set to return to the island nation as early as Friday after he fled a surge in anti-government protests in July, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

His return signals new President Ranil Wickremesinghe is confident of maintaining order after cracking down on the protest movement that has blamed Mr Rajapaksa for policy missteps that set off Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence.

The former leader is expected to stay in a house provided by the government in Colombo, the people said, asking not to be named because the information isn’t public yet.

A government spokesperson confirmed to The Straits Times that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to Sri Lanka on Friday.

Local media, including the Sinhalese-language newspaper Mawbima, first reported on his expected return on Friday. Officials from Mr Wickremesinghe’s office declined to comment.

Mr Rajapaksa, who was seen as a strongman leader, fled to Singapore in July via Maldives shortly after angry demonstrators stormed his official residence in Colombo.

It was the culmination of months-long protests as Sri Lanka buckled under dwindling foreign exchange reserves, crippling shortages of essential items and Asia’s fastest inflation.

He formally resigned as president on July 14 after arriving at Singapore and then moved to Thailand in August.

Sri Lankan media had been speculating for weeks on his intended return and government officials have said in the past that Mr Rajapaksa wanted to come back and serve the country while being accorded the security and perks due to a former president.

Mr Wickremesinghe, elected as the new president by the country’s parliament in July, is seen as a Rajapaksa ally.

He won the election with the support of lawmakers from Mr Rajapaksa’s party and a little over a month later these politicians requested Mr Wickremesinghe to ensure the safe return of their former leader in a meeting on Aug 18, local media reported.

Since taking office, Mr Wickremesinghe has focused on a securing a loan from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the country’s finances. On Thursday, Sri Lanka reached a staff-level agreement with the multilateral lender for a US$2.9 billion (S$4 billion) loan.

The loan disbursement is subject to creditors approving a debt restructuring strategy. Ahead of the IMF pact, Sri Lanka raised value-added tax and unveiled plans to boost revenue, reduce debt-to-GDP ratio and cool inflation that’s accelerated above 60 per cent. BLOOMBERG