Sight-seers throng Sri Lanka’s ransacked presidential palace amid political chaos

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would bow to demands to step down after he fled from his residence. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

COLOMBO (AFP, REUTERS) - Sri Lankans roamed through the ransacked presidential palace on Sunday (July 10) as calm returned to Colombo a day after protesters stormed the building and forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to agree to resign.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he would step down to allow an all-party interim government to take over, with Mr Rajapaksa scheduled to quit on July 13, according to the speaker of Parliament.

The political chaos could complicate efforts to pull Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades, triggered by a severe shortage of foreign currency that has stalled the imports of essentials such as fuel, food and medicines.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been in talks with the Sri Lankan government for a possible US$3 billion bailout, said on Sunday it was monitoring events closely.

“We hope for a resolution of the current situation that will allow for resumption of our dialogue on an IMF-supported programme,” the global lender said in a statement.

Mr Rajapaksa has not been seen in public since Friday and he has not directly said anything about resigning.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s office said he would also quit, although neither he nor Mr Rajapaksa could be contacted.

Three members of cabinet said they have sent in their letters of resignation.

Frustration with the economic crisis boiled over on Saturday when a huge crowd of protesters surged passed armed guards into the presidential palace and took it over.

Furniture and artefacts were smashed, and some took the opportunity to frolic in its swimming pool.

About 45 people were brought injured into a main hospital on Saturday, a hospital official said, but there were no reports of deaths in the otherwise peaceful takeover.

On Sunday, amazed ordinary folk took the opportunity to tour through the colonial-era building.

Members of the security forces, some with assault rifles, stood outside the compound but did not stop people from going in.

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Among those taking a look was 61-year-old handkerchief seller B.M. Chandrawathi, who sauntered into a first-floor bedroom accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren.

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my life,” Ms Chandrawathi told Reuters as she tried out a plush sofa.

“They enjoyed super luxury while we suffered,” she said.

“We were hoodwinked. I wanted my kids and grandkids to see the luxurious lifestyles they were enjoying.”

A protester lingers on a couch at the prime minister's official residence in Colombo on July 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Nearby, a group of young men lounged on a four-poster bed and others jostled for turns on a treadmill with a view, set up in front of large windows overlooking manicured lawns.

Student activists say they found US$49,000 in cash in Mr Rajapaksa’s room and handed it over to police.

The events on Saturday were the culmination of months of anti-government protests fuelled by an unprecedented economic crisis that bankrupted the South Asian island nation, and fury over the ruling Rajapaksa clan's corruption.

Hundreds of thousands of people had massed in the capital, Colombo, on Saturday to demand the government take responsibility for mismanaging the nation's finances, and for crippling food and fuel shortages.

After storming the gates of the presidential palace, a throng of protesters walked through its rooms, with some among the boisterous crowd jumping into the compound's pool.

Protesters in the pool of the presidential palace in Colombo on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Others were seen laughing and lounging in the stately bedrooms of the residence, with one pulling out what he claimed was a pair of Mr Rajapaksa's underwear.

After fleeing, Mr Rajapaksa boarded a naval craft at the Colombo port and was taken to the island's southern waters, where he said would finally bow to demands for him to step down.

Mr Rajapaksa had to be extracted from his residence by troops who fired into the air to keep the crowd outside at bay.

Soon after the protesters stormed the presidential palace, Mr Rajapaksa's nearby seafront office also fell into the hands of protesters.

Mr Wickremesinghe called a meeting with political leaders and said he was willing to step down to pave the way for a unity government.

But that failed to placate protesters, who stormed the premier's private residence and set it alight after night fell.

Footage shared on social media showed a crowd cheering the blaze, which broke out shortly after a security detachment guarding Mr Wickremesinghe attacked several journalists outside the home.

Mr Rajapaksa's resignation announcement was set to trigger a power struggle.

A screengrab from a social media video showing a blaze at Sri Lanka PM Ranil Wickremesinghe's house, after it was set on fire by protestors, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, urged Sri Lankan leaders to act quickly to seek long-term solutions to the nation’s economic and political crisis.

“We would urge the Sri Lankan Parliament to approach this with a commitment to the betterment of the country, not any one political party,” Mr Blinken said of the upcoming exit of Mr Rajapaksa, who had a rocky relationship with the United States.

“It’s incumbent on the government – whether it’s a new constitutionally selected government or existing government – to work quickly to try to identify and implement solutions that will bring back the prospect of long-term economic stability,” the US' top diplomat told reporters during a visit to Bangkok.

Such solutions must address “people’s discontent, which is so powerful and palpable over the worsening economic conditions”, he said.

He warned against attacks on protesters or journalists, saying Sri Lankans have “a right to protest, to peacefully raise their voices”.

“At the same time, we call for a full investigation, arrest and prosecution of anyone involved in any protest-related violence,” he added.

In the past, Mr Rajapaksa had irritated the United States with his dismissal of allegations of war crimes in the bloody finale of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war and his close economic partnership with China.

Sri Lanka has suffered through months of shortages of basic goods, lengthy blackouts and galloping inflation after running out of foreign currency to import necessities.

The government has defaulted on its US$51 billion external debt and is seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.

Sri Lanka has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol, and people unable to travel to the capital held protests in other cities across the island on Saturday.

Demonstrators had already maintained a months-long protest camp outside Mr Rajapaksa's office demanding his resignation.

The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters gathered there.

Nine people were killed and hundreds were wounded after the violence sparked reprisals against pro-government mobs and arson attacks on the homes of lawmakers.

Protesters demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gathering inside the Presidential Palace in Colombo on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Like most Sri Lankans, Ms Chandrawathi said her family was struggling to make ends meet, battered by record inflation, currency depreciation, rolling power cuts and chronic fuel shortages.

Headline inflation in the country of 22 million hit 54.6 per cent last month, and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70 per cent in the coming months.

Sprawled on an ornately carved wooden sofa, Mr Wasantha Kumara said he had spent the night inside the president’s house, where a section of the main sweeping staircase was damaged.

Nearby, a handwritten poster read: “Watch as much as you want. Don’t destroy or loot.” A smashed vase lay next to it.

The pool’s water had turned murky by Sunday and no one was swimming.

Police officers at the pool of the presidential palace in Colombo on July 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In a corner of a darkened hall at Mr Rajapaksa’s official residence, audio engineer Sameera Karunaratne sat with two friends playing Sri Lankan pop songs on a large, polished piano.

“It’s a dream to come to a place like this,” the 26-year-old said. “We just came to see what’s going on.”

Despite the chaos, the president’s office was still working.

In a statement, the office said the president had instructed officers to unload a 3,700-ton shipment of cooking gas from a ship that arrived on Sunday.

People posing for photos around a piano in the presidential palace in Colombo on July 10, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The unrest comes at the tail end of Australia's ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with Pakistan's squad also on the island for their upcoming series.

Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.

"The Australian Test is coming to an end and we are due to start the Pakistan series," a cricket board official told AFP.

"There is no opposition to having the games. In fact, fans are supportive and we have no reason to reschedule."

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