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Protesters storm presidential palace in Colombo as Sri Lanka descends into chaos

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

Protesters storm presidential palace in Colombo as Sri Lanka descends into chaos

Protesters  gather inside the compound of the presidential palace in Colombo on July 9.

Protesters gather inside the compound of the presidential palace in Colombo on July 9. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sri Lankan capital Colombo descended into chaos after thousands of protesters converged on the capital city following the lifting of the ‘illegal’ police curfew at 8 am on July 9. “The police curfew would not have mattered. People were anyway coming to the capital,” a protester told Frontline over phone from Colombo.

In just a few hours after the curfew was lifted, the protesters made their way to the presidential palace in the highly secured Fort area of the city. The police and the presidential guard put up resistance for a while, but later seem to have decided that it was not worth the effort. Indeed, teargas shells were fired into the crowd along the Galle Face green and elsewhere, but it was clear that the protesters were in no mood to disperse.

The people who entered the Presidential palace were seen using President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s swimming pool, bedroom, and office. In one photograph, a protester was seen sitting in the Presidential chair. The crowd is also seen rummaging through the President’s personal belongings and making videos of it to share with the world—akin to what happened in the Philippines with Imelda Marcos in 1986.

In this case though, there was not much to exhibit, indicating that Gotabaya had been forewarned. In fact, a few videos flashed by local television stations showed a convoy of luxury vehicles on the Katunayake Highway, heading for the airport. Another set of visuals showed the convoy inside Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, heading for a private plane.

The protesters claimed that the President had fled, and no confirmation was forthcoming to the contrary about Gotabaya’s whereabouts. A reliable source told this correspondent that the chief of Sri Lanka’s Intelligence Service, the SIS, was spotted in Dubai on July 8. There was no official confirmation of the events in any of Sri Lanka’s government social media handles at the time this piece was published.

‘Please leave’

“All of them – the President, Prime Minister and the 225–please leave. Please leave. Go home,” a respected senior lawyer Faiz Musthapha said at an impromptu meeting of the protesters. Everyone who spoke had the same message: “Gota go gama [Gota go village].” A few of the protesters said that the installation of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister had been done to ensure the safety of the Rajapaksa family.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has argued that he agreed to be Prime Minister to prevent a vacuum in governance and that he was capable of turning the economy around. He had also warned that the pain of the economic downturn would last well into 2023.

But in the eyes of the people, Wickremesinghe was not doing enough to bring the Rajapaksa clan to book. In fact, Mahinda Rajapaksa attended parliament soon after the May 9 riots. This had incensed the people.

The next steps

Sri Lanka’s constitution is very clear on what happens if the President is unable to discharge his duties. “If the President is of the opinion that by reason of his absence from Sri Lanka or any other cause he will be unable to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties and functions of his office, he may appoint the Prime Minister to exercise, perform and discharge the powers, duties and functions of the office of President during such period and may also appoint one of the other Ministers of the cabinet to act in the office of Prime Minister during such period.”

There is also a provision for the Chief Justice to exercise this power in consultation with the Speaker. From most accounts, it appears that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dream of becoming the President might actually fructify.