COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s political and economic crisis took on a unique picture on Sunday after a day of disaster high dramatic: Protesters are everywhere, cooking in the prime minister’s garden and even hanging out in the president’s bedroom, while the leader is nowhere to be seen.
With President and Prime Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa Lanier Wickremesinger Both went into hiding after saying they would resign, and it was unclear who was running the country. But for the thousands who have poured into the capital Colombo since Saturday, it didn’t matter: for months they felt like they were alone anyway, as they queued for hours – often in vain Yes—for fuel and gas, reduce their meals And scramble to save life-saving medicine.
Opposition leaders clamored to decipher Mr Rajapaksa’s intentions.
Will he really resign on Wednesday? as officials say, or does his silence suggest he is weighing his protracted war options? Discussions are also taking shape over who might succeed him, with the speaker of parliament being seen as a possible candidate for the interim president.
But it is clear whoever runs the government will be plunged into crisis, analysts say, inheriting a collapsing economy with no easy solution and an exhausted and angry public.
On Sunday, however, protesters were busy enjoying a clear victory on the verge of overthrowing the powerful political dynasty that has ruled the country for much of the past two decades.
The British colonial-era building that served as the official residence of President Rajapaksa has effectively become a free museum. Tourists flocked, the halls and stairwells filled with people, and activists had to issue calls to encourage people to visit the other top buildings they occupied: the President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“Open to the public,” they painted on the walls of the prime minister’s residence in bright large letters.
Sri Lanka’s downward spiral is playing out against a backdrop of global instability. Inflation, high energy prices and food shortages have plagued much of the world following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent economic sanctions on Moscow. Even before that, the pandemic had disrupted supply chains.
Sri Lanka was once seen as a potential economic success story to look forward to in other developing countries, with regional powers vying for influence over the island nation of 22 million.But its economy has been in recession for months, battered by Large infrastructure projects with questionable utility. The pandemic also wiped out the country’s vital tourism revenue.
Now, Sri Lanka is more of a cautionary tale.
As Army guards quietly patrolled the halls of the presidential palace on Sunday, some visitors admired the fine art, chandeliers and elaborately painted ceilings. Others lie on the president’s canopy bed, or peek into teak wardrobes or kitchen cupboards, where a man cooks in a cauldron. Aside from some graffiti urging the president to resign, a few pieces of plastic bottles, a few curtains pulled down and a few paintings slightly askew, the damage, if any, appears to be minimal.
The protesters helped pick up trash from the mansion, sweep the floor, water the plants, and even returned the roughly 17 million rupees (nearly $50,000) they found in the mansion to police after counting the banknotes.
Deepa Ranawara, her husband and their two children are enjoying the holiday spirit. The family of four are not typical activists, having walked 15 miles to and from their home both Saturday and Sunday, making it difficult for Ms Ranawara to stand with sore legs.
“People suffer so much,” she said. “I never dreamed this would happen in Sri Lanka.”
Two years ago, Ms Ranawara and her husband took a loan from the bank to open a corner shop selling the basics – milk, sugar, rice, eggs – to supplement his income from painting cars and pay for their daughter’s tuition Expenses as she prepares for the final exam for the most important thing. Now, months into Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, the couple are struggling to repay loans and restock.
“We now eat about twice a day,” Ms Ranawara said. “We don’t even think about fish or meat.”
For more than two years, Mohammad Imran’s two children have been unable to attend school normally in Colombo. The first is the pandemic. Now is the economic crisis. Fuel has become scarce, and the cost of everything from food to transportation has skyrocketed.
Mr Imran has cut expenses, such as taking his family out for dinner once a week, but he wants to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of the most important Muslim holidays, with his children on Sunday. He borrowed some petrol to refuel his motorcycle and drove Barerah, 11, and Thameem, 5, to the presidential palace.
As he toured the majestic grounds, he said: “Seeing his way of life, I think it’s good for their education.”
Protesters have blamed the suffering on President Rajapaksa and the wider Rajapaksa family who hold key positions in the government.
Faced with mounting unrest over the past year, Rajapaksa initially denied the economy was collapsing. As protesters took to the streets in the spring, the president tried to make incremental compromises, asking his family to leave their government positions and reshuffle his cabinet. Even after protesters forced his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to resign in May, the president continued to ignore their calls for his resignation.
Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, an ally of Rajapaksa and the speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, said late Saturday that the president had told him he would resign on Wednesday. But neither Mr Rajapaksa nor other officials around him said that directly.
Security officials and political leaders close to the president have been tight-lipped about his whereabouts, claiming they don’t know or don’t answer the phone. But Colombo is rife with rumours that the president has moved to a military base on the outskirts of the capital. The rumors followed speculation on Saturday, sparked by video of luggage being sent to a Navy ship and government vehicles speeding toward the airport, where the president had left the city.
Prime Minister Mr. Wickremesinghe would normally be the acting president, according to the order of succession stipulated in the Sri Lankan constitution.Many thought he was preparing for the possibility, but on Saturday Mr Wickremesinghe He also announced his intention to resign. The anger at him was so great that his private home was burned down.
That makes Mr Abbeywarden, the 76-year-old speaker of parliament, a possible interim leader.
“The constitution states that if the president resigns and there is no prime minister, the speaker of parliament can serve as president for a month,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a professor of political science at the University of Colombo.
The acting president will have a month to elect the president from among the members of parliament. Analysts say the winner will complete the remaining two years of Mr Rajapaksa’s term before the election expires.
Mr Uyangoda said both the new president and the new prime minister, who will also come from parliament, will be caught in a “crisis trap”.
While the protests focused on abuses by the long-dominant Rajapaksa family, demonstrators were equally sympathetic to the Infighting in the wider political class. Organisers want the power of the executive to be limited, they want more accountability and checks and balances from the government.
Mr Uyangoda said the new leader would struggle to deliver on any promises due to the daunting economic crisis.
“The entire political class has also lost the trust of the public,” he said. “There is a contradiction between the political class and politically awakened citizens. Unless this contradiction is resolved constructively, we will continue to see instability.”
Emily Schmal Colombo report Mujib Machar from New Delhi. Skandha Gunasekara Reporting from Colombo.