Taking selfies, Sri Lankans converge on presidential palace

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Hundreds of Sri Lankans jostled Monday to use the vast array of exercise machines in the private gym of the presidential palace, lifting weights and running on treadmills inside a facility that was, until now, the exclusive domain of the country’s beleaguered president.

For many who had traveled on overcrowded trains and buses from outside the capital, Colombo, this was the first time they had laid eyes on a residence so grand. The colonial-era structure was a staggering sight, with airy verandas, plush living rooms and spacious bedrooms, a garden swimming pool and neatly manicured lawns.

On Saturday, thousands of angry Sri Lankans descended on the residence in fury against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who they blame for an unprecedented economic meltdown that has throttled the lives of the nation’s 22 million people. They turned over barriers and then swarmed the lawns to enter the palatial residence and occupy it.

Two days later, people continued to stream in, flocking to it like a tourist attraction, marveling at the paintings inside and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.

Alawwa Ralage Piyasena, a 67-year-old farmer who arrived by bus from outside Colombo, was stunned by the president’s gym. “I never thought I would get an opportunity to see these things,” he said, gesturing at the equipment while trying to hop onto a treadmill.

“Look at the pool and this gym. We can see how they enjoyed a life of luxury here while people struggled outside. Our families are suffering without food.”

The weekend saw the most dramatic escalation yet of the monthslong protests against the country’s worst economic crisis, with protesters not only forcing their way into the presidential palace but also storming the prime minister’s official residence and setting fire to his private home.

The charged events led to both leaders agreeing to step down — Rajapaksa, who has not been seen publicly or heard from since, said he would leave office Wednesday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would depart as soon as opposition parties agree on a unity government.

But protest leaders have said they will not leave the official buildings until both actually resign.

For months, demonstrators have camped outside Rajapaksa’s office, demanding he quit for severely mismanaging the economy. Many have accused him and his powerful, dynastic family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for nearly two decades, of corruption and policy blunders that tipped the island nation into crisis.

People’s patience has grown increasingly thin, with the crisis sparking shortages of fuel, medicine, food and cooking gas. Authorities have temporarily shuttered schools, while the country relies on aid from India and other nations as it tries to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

The severe fuel shortage has choked transport, forcing many to use public buses, trains and even bicycles to get around. Hundreds of people held onto the roofs of overcrowded trains to make the journey to the presidential palace.

At first, thousands stormed the residence in rage, waving the national flag and chanting “Gota Go Home!” But since Rajapaksa announced he would resign, many of those arriving now were jubilant, strolling the vast residence as sightseers. Inside and outside the complex, scores of unarmed policemen patrolled the area — but did not stop the deluge of crowds from coming in.

On Monday, the place was packed. The official residence had been forbidden to the general public, and even those invited were only allowed into certain areas.

People peered into each room, settling into beds and taking copious selfies. But no one dared to dip into the pool on Monday, after videos on social media showed crowds splashing in glee over the weekend. Now, the once clear blue water had turned a muddy brown.

In the lush green gardens outside, groups gathered with snacks, sipping on soda and tea, as though they were out on a picnic with friends and family.

“This belongs to the people,” declared Padama Gamage, a laborer, who traveled on a bus from Galle, on the country’s southwestern tip. “Now I know how these leaders enjoyed luxury at our cost.”

Not all were relaxing, however. Groups of volunteers banded together, sweeping up broken chairs and glass from damaged windows, a sign of the rage that swept through on Saturday. They tried to control the throng, saying some people were again vandalizing the property.

“If allowed, they would even take the doors and windows, so we are trying to control the crowd,” said Bulupitiyage Suresh, a 29-year-old who has been protesting against Rajapaksa for over a month.

Welihitiyawe Dhammawimala, a Buddhist monk, lamented the damage, saying public money will now be spent on refurbishing the place. “Had Rajapaksa resigned earlier, this would not have happened,” he said.

Nearby, people waited in a long line to enter the president’s office, now taken over by the protesters who had hunkered outside it for months. The line grew longer by the day, almost resembling the long queues people have been forced to wait in for months to get fuel.

A few kilometers (miles) away, the prime minister’s official residence, known as Temple Trees, was also overrun by protesters. Singing crowds gathered around a man playing a piano inside while others cluster around a Carrom board game or slept on the overstuffed sofas. Outside, people cooked rice and curry, offering it freely to passersby.

Back at Rajapaksa’s official residence, Supun Dhammika, a student, fumed over the family’s legacy in the country.

“The fall of the presidential residence into the hands of protesters and the public symbolizes the fall of the Rajapaksa dynasty,” he said.

“If they think they can come back from this, it’s only a dream. They ruined the country and they have no right to seek votes from people ever again.”

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