Thousands of protesters swarmed the Sri Lankan president’s home in Colombo and were seen cavorting in its swimming pool as anarchy engulfed the bankrupt South Asian island and the leader said he would step down.
Surreal scenes captured on cell phone video showed citizens watching television, eating, and roaming the halls of the palace as the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa teetered on the edge of collapse. Millions have been unable to buy food, medicine, and fuel for months amid a devastating financial crisis that has pitted parliament against the presidency and reopened old wounds between majority Buddhists and minority Tamils.
“Gota go home,” the mob was heard chanting, using a popular nickname for the reviled leader. Outside the sprawling residence, barricades were knocked down and a black banner was raised on a flagpole.
NOW – Protesters storm the presidential palace in Sri Lanka's capital.pic.twitter.com/Wv6oQ10kBQ
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“I came here today to send the president home,” protester Wasantha Kiruwaththuduwa, 50, told The New York Times. “Now the president must resign. If he wants peace to prevail, he must step down.”
Rajapaksa, whose family has ruled the nation of 22 million for much of the last two decades, said Saturday he will step down July 13. His brother already resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests and three other members of the family were among 26 cabinet members who resigned en masse in April. Public anger has been directed at the family over claims of mismanagement and corruption.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over in May, has also been called upon to exit, even as he is scrambling to save the country’s economy through negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. In April, the nation said it would suspend repayment of foreign loans, which amounts to $51 billion.
“We are now participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt country,” he told lawmakers earlier this week. “Therefore, we have to face a more difficult and complicated situation than previous negotiations.”
Just IN:— Protestors cool themselves in luxurious swimming pool of Sri Lanka president palace. pic.twitter.com/3kP4p6zPto
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The economic crisis has ripped open old wounds in the nation, located off the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean. Although a nearly 30-year civil war between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, the insurgent group that fought on behalf of the minority Tamils, ended more than a decade ago, the division has re-emerged.
Rajapaksa won election in 2019 with a wave of popular support and a promise to end Colombo’s conciliatory approach toward minority groups including Muslims and Tamils.
“It is no secret that the majority who voted for me then were Sinhalese,” Rajapaksa told parliament in 2020. “They rallied because they had legitimate fears that the Sinhala race, our religion, national resources, and the heritage would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies that support separatism, extremism, and terrorism.”
With the financial crisis undermining his popularity among his base and parliament demanding his ouster, Rajapaksa’s days as president appear to be numbered, experts say.