Friday, August 12, 2022

Protesters storm the prime minister’s office in Sri Lanka after the president fled to the Maldives

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The protesters have vowed to cook, eat and live in the luxurious setting until the PM tenders his resignation

Sri Lankan protesters stormed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Colombo office after he was named acting president of the country, hours after embattled leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country to the Maldives.

Earlier protesters called for Mr Wickremesinghe’s resignation and were met with tear gas by security forces, some armed with assault rifles, outside the official headquarters in the capital.

“Ranil, go home!” many chanted before storming the office while police fired tear gas. Mr Wickremesinghe’s whereabouts could not be confirmed, but he said as acting president he was working to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

Activists said they wanted him to resign and called on leaders to return their “stolen money”.

“We want Ranil to step down,” said S. Shashidharan, a 30-year-old who said he was tear gassed earlier in the day. “Arrest everyone who helped Gota (the President) escape.”

Student Sanchuka Kavinda, 25, said, “It feels pretty wonderful, people have been trying to take this place for about three hours.”

“No matter what happens, everyone in this crowd will be here until Ranil resigns, too.”

Sri Lanka’s Defense Chief Gen Shavendra Silva said the armed forces and police would respect the constitution and called for calm after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives with his wife.

“We have asked political leaders to decide how to proceed until a new president is sworn in, and to notify us and the public by tonight,” he said.

Pictures and video showed the prime minister’s colonial-era whitewashed office, with its ornate wooden staircase and lawn filled with protesters. A group of peaceful protesters gathered in a courtyard to sing revolutionary Sinhala songs while armed military personnel sat in an air-conditioned room nearby. Other forces led the protesters through an airy upstairs room with the plush furniture pushed into the corners and access to the main office blocked.

Earlier, police had attempted to retaliate against protesters with tear gas and helicopters circling overhead, but eventually seemed to give up and some retreated or simply stood aside to watch. Inside the building, the mood was celebratory as people stretched out on plush sofas, watched television and held mock meetings in wood-paneled conference rooms. Some wandered around as if they were visiting a museum.

“We will cook here, eat here and live here. We will remain until (Mr. Wickremesinghe) handed in his resignation,” said Lahiru Ishara, 32, a supervisor at a supermarket in Colombo who has been involved in the protests since the protests began in April. “There is no other alternative.”

The economic crisis has resulted in shortages of goods that have sowed despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, all the more shocking as the economy was expanding and a comfortable middle class was growing before the recent crisis.

“Not just Gotabaya and Ranil, all 225 MPs should go home. Because in the last few decades, family policies have ruined our country,” said Madusanka Perera, a worker who arrived in Colombo from the outskirts on the day protesters occupied the first government buildings. He lost his job and his father, a driver, is unable to do his job due to lack of fuel.

“I’m 29 years old — I should be having the time of my life, but instead I have no job, no money and no life,” he said.

A few miles away, hundreds of people had lined up peacefully to visit Gotabaya’s official residence.

KK Subasinghe was among those in line waiting to enter the home of the once feared former soldier who boarded a Sri Lanka Air Force plane early Wednesday morning and fled to the Maldives, accompanied by his wife and two bodyguards.

After massive protests against his rule on July 9, Mr Rajapaksa told the Speaker of Parliament that he was resigning.

Mr Subasinghe said he had also served in the Sri Lanka Army and fought against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the country’s bloody civil war. The war ended in 2009 under the direction of Rajapaksa, then Defense Minister.

But Mr Subasinghe said he had little admiration for Mr Rajapaksa and had brought his family and brother to show them the opulence of the presidential residence.

“I wanted to give them a glimpse of their (the) luxurious lifestyle (of the Rajapaksas),” said Mr Subasinghe, who wore a collared T-shirt and khaki pants and was holding a green plastic bag.

“While we suffered, they asked us to grow our own food and ride bikes.”

With agencies

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