Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has finally gotten to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Despite months of widespread protests demanding his resignation, the strongman has held onto power as his country fell apart—until now.
After thousands of protesters braved tear gas and stormed his presidential palace on Saturday, Rajapaksa agreed to step down on July 13.
Since then, Sri Lankans have taken over the president’s grand colonial-era palace, splashed in his pool, tested his treadmill, and taken selfies on his canopied bed. Many tinkered with his piano, some put their feet up on tables, and played cards.
Amjad Moulana, an entrepreneur and son of a former parliamentarian, had a front view on history: He was the protester at the head of the crowd who opened the doors of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace.
“It was a bittersweet moment. Bitter because we had to break through those doors, and sweet because it showed sovereignty lies with the people,” Moulana told VICE World News.
“As we entered, we saw food on the table. You could see the disconnect between how the Rajapaksas and the people were living,” he said.
Sri Lankans taking selfies sprawled out on a canopied bed in the presidential palace on July 10. PHOTO: Arun SANKAR / AFP
Many families brought their children to the palace to show them how grand it was. PHOTO: Arun SANKAR / AFP
Some settled in and played cards and board games. PHOTO: Arun SANKAR / AFP
The island country of 22 million has a severe foreign exchange shortage that has strangled imports of fuel, food, medicine and other essential goods. Sri Lanka has tried to manage the crisis by shutting schools and denying fuel for nonessential work.
The South Asian country has a foreign debt of $51 billion but less than $50 million left in its usable foreign exchange reserves. The government plans to stop printing money to control what’s now Asia’s fastest-rising inflation, which is estimated to reach 70 percent in a few months. If it does, the country will have the highest inflation rate in the world this year.
Protesters on the stairs of the Presidential Secretariat on July 9. Photo: Amalini De Sayrah
Last week, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the country was bankrupt and had entered into bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to save the economy from collapse. The country has defaulted on much of its foreign debt.
“This is because of economic mismanagement and misfortune. We failed to make reforms to move forward. We borrowed too much in dollars,” Dhananath Fernando, a Colombo-based economist, told VICE World News.
The IMF, which is expected to offer support to Sri Lanka, is calling for a “resolution of the current situation” as a prerequisite to resuming discussions.
The storming of the presidential palace on Saturday demonstrated years of pent-up rage among citizens now fed up with their politicians’ excesses and corruption. Wickremesinghe’s home was not spared – protesters set it on fire the same day. Police arrested three men on charges of arson, but the protesters denied the charges. “We did not set fire to Ranil’s (Wickremesinghe) house. Buildings like this are our property. We must protect it,” one protester said. The president and prime minister were not in their residences at the time of the attacks, during which at least 39 people were injured and brought to hospitals over the weekend.
Sri Lankan crowds inside their presidential palace, in Colombo on July 10, a day after it was overrun by anti-government protestors. PHOTO: Arun SANKAR / AFP
Rajapaksa announced his decision to step down through the parliament’s speaker and Wickremesinghe, who said he, too, would resign. This means the speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana, will be acting president for a month before elections are held. It did not sit well with some protesters.
“The speaker is no better than other politicians, as he has endorsed unscientific decisions and allowed corruption and mismanagement of public resources,” protester Melani Gunathilaka told VICE World News. “But we don’t want the country to be in chaos, and we want change to happen as constitutionally as possible.”