Sri Lankans converge on the presidential palace taking selfies

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Hundreds of Sri Lankans rushed Monday to use the wide array of exercise machines at the presidential palace’s private gym, lifting weights and running on treadmills inside a facility that, until now, , was the exclusive domain of the country’s embattled president.

For many who had traveled on crowded trains and buses from outside the capital, Colombo, this was the first time they had seen such a grand residence. The colonial-era structure was an astonishing sight, with sweeping terraces, lavish living rooms and large bedrooms, a garden pool, and manicured lawns.

On Saturday, thousands of angry Sri Lankans descended on the residence in fury against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whom they blame for an unprecedented economic collapse that has strangled the lives of the nation’s 22 million people. They overturned the barriers and then invaded the gardens to enter the palatial residence and occupy it.

Two days later, people kept coming, flocking like a tourist attraction, marveling at the paintings inside and lounging on pillow-filled beds.

Alawwa Ralage Piyasena, a 67-year-old farmer who arrived by bus from the outskirts of Colombo, was stunned at the president’s gym. “I never thought he would get a chance to see these things,” he said, gesturing at the equipment as he tried to get on a treadmill.

“Look at the pool and this gym. We can see how they enjoyed a life of luxury here while people were fighting outside. Our families are suffering without food.”

The weekend saw the most dramatic escalation yet in month-long protests against the country’s worst economic crisis, with protesters not only storming the presidential palace but also storming the prime minister’s official residence and setting fire to fire to his private house.

The accused events led to both leaders agreeing to resign: Rajapaksa, who has not been publicly seen or heard from since, said he would step down on Wednesday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave as soon as opposition parties agree on a unity government.

But protest leaders have said they will not leave official buildings until both resign.

For months, protesters have camped outside Rajapaksa’s office, demanding that he resign for mismanaging the economy. Many have accused him and his powerful dynastic family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for almost two decades, of corruption and political mistakes that brought the island to crisis.

People’s patience has become increasingly scarce, and the crisis has led to shortages of fuel, medicine, food and cooking gas. Authorities have temporarily closed schools as the country relies on help from India and other nations as it tries to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Wickremesinghe recently said negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending payments on foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign exchange. Its total external debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must pay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Severe fuel shortages have brought transport to a standstill, forcing many to use public buses, trains and even bicycles to get around. Hundreds of people clung to the roofs of packed trains to make the journey to the presidential palace.

At first, thousands of people stormed the residence in fury, waving the national flag and chanting “Gota Go Home!” But since Rajapaksa announced that he would resign, many of those arriving now were jubilant, strolling through the vast residence like tourists. Inside and outside the complex, dozens of unarmed police patrolled the area, but they did not prevent the rush of crowds from entering.

On Monday, the place was packed. The official residence had been off-limits to the general public, and even guests were only allowed to enter certain areas.

People peeked into each room, settled into beds, and took lots of selfies. But no one dared to dive into the pool on Monday, after videos on social media showed the crowd splashing with joy over the weekend. Now, the clear blue water had turned a muddy brown.

In the lush green gardens outside, groups gathered over refreshments, drinking soft drinks and tea, as if on a picnic with friends and family.

“This is from the people,” said Padama Gamage, a worker who traveled by bus from Galle, in the far south-west of the country. “Now I know how these leaders enjoyed luxury at our expense.”

However, not all of them were relaxing. Groups of volunteers came together to sweep up broken chairs and damaged window glass, a sign of the anger that spread on Saturday. They tried to control the crowd, saying that some people were again vandalizing property.

“If they were allowed, they would even take the doors and windows, so we are trying to control the crowd,” said Bulupitiyage Suresh, a 29-year-old who has been protesting against Rajapaksa for more than a month.

Welihitiyawe Dhammawimala, a Buddhist monk, lamented the damage and said public money will now be spent on restoring the site. “If Rajapaksa had resigned sooner, this would not have happened,” he said.

Nearby, people waited in a long line to enter the president’s office, now occupied by protesters who had barricaded themselves outside for months. The line grew longer each day, almost akin to the long lines people have been forced to wait for months to get fuel.

A few kilometers (miles) away, the prime minister’s official residence, known as Temple Trees, was also invaded by protesters. Singing crowds gathered around a man playing the piano inside, while others huddled around a Carrom board game or slept on the overstuffed sofas. Outside, people cooked rice and curry, freely offering it to passersby.

Back at the official Rajapaksa residence, Supun Dhammika, a student, was furious at the family’s legacy in the country.

“The fall of the presidential residence in the hands of the protesters and the public symbolizes the fall of the Rajapaksa dynasty,” he said.

“If they think they can come back from this, it’s just a dream. They ruined the country and they have no right to seek votes from the people anymore.”


Conversations are the opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not endorse these views.

Leave a Comment