Sri Lanka’s political turmoil escalates as protesters demand ‘clean start’

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Angry protesters forced Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister, one a powerful war veteran, the other a seasoned six-times premier, to resign after storming the former’s official residence and setting fire to the latter’s home.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters from across the South Asian nation converged on Colombo on Saturday despite a severe shortage of fuel that has brought the country to a standstill.

Men and women from all walks of life contributed towards fuel to travel by buses, forced the stalled train lines to resume service, and walked on foot for hours, defying a Friday night curfew to oust what they call a “corrupt government”.

Protesters shouting “Go Home Gota” [President Gotabaya Rajapaksa] and “Go Home Ranil” [Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe] stormed the presidential palace the in capital, as well as the presidential secretariat along the seafront promenade a few kilometres away, taking over the buildings.

A few hours later, while thousands of protesters clashed with the military, the prime minister’s private home in central Colombo was torched.

Just before part of his ancestral home went up in flames, Mr Wickremesinghe called for an emergency all-party meeting where opposition leaders asked him and Mr Rajapaksa to give into the people’s demand and quit.

In a statement, Mr Wickremesinghe said he was “willing to resign” as prime minister. He later tweeted: “To ensure the continuation of the government including the safety of all citizens, I accept the best recommendation of the PARTY LEADERS today, to make way for an All-Party government and to facilitate this I will resign as Prime Minister.”

Shortly afterwards President Rajapaksa agreed to “peacefully hand over power” and requested the public to ensure there is a peaceful transition, in a statement issued by the speaker of the parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

Sources told The Independent that the president and the prime minister have been evacuated to a secure but undisclosed location.

A source from Colombo’s main state hospital told The Independent more than 40 people had been treated for injuries following Saturday’s clashes.

Witnesses said that three men, who had scaled the walls of the presidential secretariat, were shot in the face by the military, and they believed two have died. However, there has been no confirmation of deaths by the police.

“The shooting incident was true, and two of them are in critical condition,” one police source who asked to remain anonymous told The Independent, “but there has been no news of deaths so far.”

Sri Lanka is in the grip of bankruptcy and for months the country has been spiralling into the worst economic crisis since its independence from the British in 1948.

In May, the United Nations declared Sri Lanka was the second hungriest nation in the region and for the first time in history, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt as an independent nation.

Unicef and the World Food Programme released a statement last month saying that more than 80 per cent of Sri Lankan families are having to eat less food as a result of the dire economic situation – which means people who had cut down to eating only two meals a day are now eating one.

Child mortality is on the rise, maternity hospitals are recording a sharp rise in malnutrition and infant deaths, and 13 people have died waiting in fuel queues.

Other essentials, including cooking gas, medicines and food, are scarce. Supermarket shelves are mostly empty and the cost of basic food has risen by 300 per cent.

Anti government protesters swim in a swimming pool of the Sri lankan president's official residence (AP)
Anti government protesters swim in a swimming pool of the Sri lankan president's official residence (AP)

Sri Lankans, who are made up of a majority 70 per cent Sinhalese, voted in Mr Rajapaksa as president two years ago, in what he called in his acceptance speech “a victory by majority Sinhalese votes”.

Known for the Rajapaksa family’s divide and rule policy, pitting the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamils, Muslims and Christians, his dynasty have ruled Sri Lanka for decades despite accusations of nepotism, corruption, war crimes and human rights violations by the international community.

One protester who was present at the president’s house on Saturday said the country needs a “clean start”.

“We have been foolish. We need a clean beginning, clear of corruption, nepotism and division. We need a country free of the Rajapaksas and his cronies,” said 28-year-old Devinda Lakshan, who has been with the Aragalaya (The Struggle) movement since its inception in April, and voted for the president.

The movement that began with a handful of civilians asking the president and his family to leave politics metamorphosed into a national crusade and saw the ousting of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in similar circumstances in May.

Thousands of peaceful protesters broke into the prime minister’s official home following clashes incited by Rajapaksa supporters, resulting in the resignation of Mr Rajapaksa, who was also a former president and brother of President Gotabaya.

Men and women who have taken over the presidential palace and the presidential secretariat say they will refuse to leave until there is a “permanent solution”.

“This is just the beginning, there’s still a long way to go,” said Champika Priyadharshana, a 30-year-old, while overlooking the cooking of lunch for hundreds of protesters who have stayed overnight, sleeping on the teak couches and silk carpets of the white colonial building dating from the British era.

A man sleeps on a couch at the prime minister's official residence in Colombo (EPA)
A man sleeps on a couch at the prime minister's official residence in Colombo (EPA)

As volunteers cook a meal of rice, dhal and vegetables in the sprawling lawn that until recently hosted dinner parties, rations provided by anonymous well-wishers keep coming in.

“We are dying as a nation, and the Rajapaksas have killed it. It will take time for us to get back on track, but if we don’t do this right now, the children of this nation won’t even have one meal to eat a day. We’re fighting for lives here, and we’ll keep fighting until we win this,” he said, politely asking the sight-seerers to move away from the food line, reserved for the Aragalaya movement.

Facebook videos of bundles of 5,000 Sri Lankan Rupee notes found in the president’s house have gone viral, as have protesters taking a dip in the private swimming pool shouting, “let’s enjoy a bit of the public money”.

While protesters have made the presidential palace their home until a new government is formed, the landmark building as well as the presidential secretariat have become places of curiosity for the public.

Plush living in a nation that has gone hungry and bankrupt is not lost on the visitors. “My kids eat just twice, sometimes once a day,” said a woman who was looking around the building. “And look at how they live.”

A game of carrom set up on an antique Victorian stool was in progress, while young men and women guarded paintings and expensive artefacts from the public. Several hurriedly handwritten boards saying, “This is public property, please safeguard”, were stuck with sellotape in various places of the president’s home.

A security officer who has been working at the presidential residence for 12 years said that the protesters have been “very disciplined - any kind of vandalism was committed by others who came in yesterday. But since they took over, they have been protecting the place”.

A loudspeaker in both destinations continuously urges people to refrain from stealing, destruction and any kind of violent acts. The words, “Our struggle is for a reason. It is for you. Don’t mar it with greed,” is repeated.

As people throng through the colonial building of the presidential secretariat, a section has been cordoned off by the protesters as the library for the public.

“We don’t want violence. We never intended violence,” said Rasika Koralage, a 42-year-old businesswoman and mother of four, one of the protesters who led the breaking into the presidential residence on Saturday.

“I have a thriving business, two of my children are settled overseas as nurses, I have built two homes, and I have had no issue with food or petrol. But if those of us who are comfortable, a minority right now, don’t stand up on behalf of the rest of our people, what happens to Sri Lanka?” she asked.

Kamal Ratnayake, another protestor at the site of the prime minister’s partially burnt house said: “We are here to stay. We came here the hard way and we’re not leaving the easy way. We will stay until there’s democracy, an end to corruption, and an end to each and every Rajapaksa and his buddies in the parliament. This is time for people’s power.”

Since Saturday, five ministers close to the Rajapaksa family, including the business magnate Dammika Perera, who was given a powerful portfolio last month, have resigned.

Despite President Rajapaksa’s promise to step down on Wednesday, protesters who orchestrated events on Saturday are not sure if the president will actually resign then.

“He is like a leach. The entire family is. They are too attached to power, are afraid of accountability and will not leave until they are squashed,” claimed Mahesh Kuruvita, who has stayed at the presidential palace since Saturday night. “Until he actually resigns, along with the rest of his corrupt cabinet, we will stay here. This is just the beginning of our struggle.”

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