Sri Lanka protesters have vowed to stay in the presidential palace until the Rajapaksa government is over-By South Asia correspondent Avani Dias

Sri Lanka protesters have vowed to stay in the presidential palace until the Rajapaksa government is over-By South Asia correspondent Avani Dias

Sri Lanka protesters have vowed to stay in the presidential palace until the Rajapaksa government is over-By South Asia correspondent Avani Dias

Curious Sri Lankans roamed through the ransacked presidential palace in Colombo.(AP: Eranga Jayawardena) 


With giant white pillars, a bright blue pool, fully stocked gym, and a garage full of high-end cars, the President of Sri Lanka’s house is the height of luxury and opulence.

It was once a fortified place, representing a level of wealth inaccessible to ordinary Sri Lankans who haven’t been able to get basics like food and fuel for months during a crippling economic crisis.

Now, the residence has been extraordinarily taken over by regular people who are refusing to leave until they see “systemic change” and the President’s resignation.

A group of people gathered on a balcony in a place holding signs and talking.
Protesters swarmed into Mr Rajapaksa’s fortified residence in a rage over the nation’s severe economic crisis.(ABC News: Ryan Wijayaratne) 

Thousands stormed the property on Saturday and for the first time, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swapped places with his people.

Sri Lankans who have gone without power for hours every day watched cricket on his flat-screen TVs.

Men dressed in black lay on their stomachs on the president’s bed and watch the cricket on a nearby TV.

Men dressed in black lay on their stomachs on the president's bed and watch the cricket on a nearby TV.

After months of food shortages, and with Colombo expected to run out completely by September, they ate his snacks and made curries in the kitchen.

Those who waited for hours in queues for fuel, cooking gas, and food every day for the last few months took selfies lying down on the President’s beds and sofas.

A man in thongs is mid-stride on a cross trainer surrounded by other gym equipment

Sri Lankans ate food from the kitchen, watched cricket on the President’s big screen television and even tried out his gym equipment. (Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

“Walking inside his house felt really surreal, it was very overwhelming to see the extent of luxury that they enjoy while people were dying in [fuel] queues, starving having one meal every other day of plain rice and curry,” protester Jeana De Zoysa told the ABC.

“We didn’t even get time to explore the whole house because it’s so big … I didn’t know what to think while I was in there.

Authorities have not stopped people from going into the residences.(AP: Eranga Jayawardena)

“The public should safeguard government property, but the government needs to make fuel available, sort out children’s schooling.

“I’m a security guard at the President’s residence and I hope my job will be secure because I’m the father of two children and struggling.”

The room meant to house security guards has: 'give our stolen money back' painted on it
Fuel shortages prevented some security guards from reaching their post at the President’s house as it was overrun with protesters. (Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has officially informed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that he will be resigning.

The parliamentary speaker has said that announcement will be made on Wednesday.

However, experts are now warning that what happens next will be pivotal for the future of Sri Lanka: the country could descend into anarchy, or the protests could create necessary systemic change.

“We are at a crossroads. We are having a crisis like no other and it depends on which path we are going to traverse,” Sri Lankan economist Murthazar Jafferjee said.

“Hopefully, in 10 years, we can probably become a tougher country if you do the necessary changes.”

A young girl has her hand on the keys, as another young child sits with her on the piano stool
Two kids play the piano inside the house of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled, amid the country’s economic crisis.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Sri Lankans want sweeping reform and fresh elections

Sri Lankans have been suffering for months with soaring inflation and non-existent foreign reserves driving supplies of food, medication, and fuel down to critical levels.

There are constant power outages and as conditions get worse without any solid solution on the horizon, people have been protesting for months.

A mass of students march down the street holding placards.
Sri Lankans have been demonstrating for months, calling for the resignations of leaders who they blame for the country’s dire economic straits.(AP: Amitha Thennakoon)

Many blame the Government led by the dynastic and once-powerful Rajapaksa family for mismanagement, alleging they used the country’s wealth for personal gain.

The Government has tried to curtail the demonstrations, ordering police to use tear gas, shoot water cannons at crowds, and giving the military greater powers.

“The protesters were breaking down barricades for what seemed like a really long time, facing the tear gas and cannons until we got to the front,” Ms De Zoysa said.

“I was in the first 100 or so people going into the President’s house.

Another witness told Reuters police fired shots into the air. The ABC has been unable to verify if any protesters were targeted or shot by security forces.

The previous prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, resigned in May in an attempt to appease protesters.

But ultimately, they are demanding the President stand aside, with daily choruses of protesters chanting “Gota Go Home”.

Sri Lanka’s opposition parties are expected to form an “all-party government” if the President resigns, with speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena stepping in as interim president until an election among MPs to elect a leader.

But Mr Jafferjee says the country needs to have an election for people to be able trust the next government.

“The most important thing is that you need the political legitimacy and I’m afraid that the government that we have at the moment does not have legitimacy,” he said.

Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena
Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena (left) will likely be appointed acting president if Mr Rajapaksa resigns.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)
“So we need to have an election, I believe the minimum period is six weeks to put in place a new government with a new mandate that will have stability in Parliament, and most importantly, legitimacy.”

The protesters have also been calling for systemic changes to take “authoritarian power” away from the president’s position.

Sri Lanka’s president has sweeping powers to appoint and fire ministers and appoint elections, the public service, police, and corruption investigation commissions.

Legal experts say the only way those executive powers can be shed is through a referendum. 

“If you want to really take out the executive presidency, you will need to have it not only pass through to those which are to Parliament, but also moved to the people at a referendum,” Saliya Peiris, from Sri Lanka’s Bar Association, said.

“If you are removing the entirety of the executive presidency, you need to go to the people at a referendum.” 

Protesters say their movement shows real change takes people power

While politicians argue about how to solve the parliamentary crisis, the day-to-day lives of Sri Lankans aren’t going to improve unless the country can secure a significant foreign bailout.

Man waves his fists up in the air in victory sign above a crowd of people.
Sri Lankan protesters say they will remain at the residences of both the prime minister and president for the time being.(Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)

The country needs at least $6 billion to tide over its foreign exchange reserves and pay to import essential goods. 

Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund have lagged, with the institution warning the nation needs to do more to restructure debt and address corruption if it is going to receive a bailout. 

That could take months, leaving Sri Lankans facing even worse living conditions. 

“The next government, the first thing is to try to finalise an IMF program which will require a debt restructuring,” Mr Jafferjee said.

“So the path is very clear what needs to be done for the next six months, that would be priority number one. [They also need to] procure some basic essentials so that the basic needs of the people are met.” 

Australia has offered Sri Lanka $50 million in aid, but experts say the Albanese Government can do more to bring back stability in the country.

“The first thing is, Australia is a member of the Quad and the Quad has an explicit stance on trying to help Sri Lanka starting with India,” Mr Jafferjee said.

“Australia has also gone through a significant amount of reform over the last 30 years that has made them stronger.

“There has to be experience-sharing of the type of reform Australia did to get the economy to where it is today.”

Protester Ms De Zoysa says Sri Lanka’s months of protests have shown the power of a strong movement.

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