Calm after the storm, as citizens flock to Sri Lanka’s captured power centres

Meera Srinivasan | | Updated on: Jul 11, 2022
File picture: Demonstrators wait in line for breakfast after entering the Presidential Secretariat premises, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Sunday.

File picture: Demonstrators wait in line for breakfast after entering the Presidential Secretariat premises, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Sunday. | Photo Credit: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE

For many, it was a huge accomplishment to walk into the seats of power that were till recently high security zones

 Sunday was nothing like Saturday near Colombo’s seafront.   

It was much less crowded, but still teeming with people. They were curiously surveying the Presidential Secretariat and official residence, a day after outraged demonstrators captured and occupied the iconic colonial-era structures, in a stunning finale to a season of protests in crisis-hit Sri Lanka. 

In their smiling faces, a sense of accomplishment appeared to have displaced anger, as they walked through the sites of unbridled executive power that have now become symbols of their resistance to it. “I was here yesterday, too. The rally was historic. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see and be part of such a massive protest to dislodge our leaders,” said Masha Munaweera, a 34-year-old banker. She was back at the site, along with her mother. “She, too, wanted to see this change,” Munaweera said, cautiously adding: “I really hope they [President and PM] do resign. There is some concern they may try to hold on to power. Let’s see.” 

The scepticism is widely shared among citizens, who had hoped for change. All the same, they were keen to savour the moment, and partake in the new hope it has brought. The presidential palace, until 48 hours ago, was a high-security area, with barricades keeping passers by an entire lane away.

From not being able to get even a glimpse of the building, people were thronging its gates on Sunday, as its new occupants tried to regulate a very large and excited crowd. “Please bear with us. We are trying to send you all inside in batches to make it manageable,” said a man seated on top of the high compound wall. Through the fences, long queues of people could be seen making their way in, to see for themselves the different spots at Mr. Gotabaya’s former home, seen in the unbelievable, now viral, videos of citizens taking a dip in the pool, cooking a meal, or relaxing in a luxury couch.   

Just outside, the walls by the large iron gates at the top of the lane, are now filled with protest graffiti after Saturday’s takeover by demonstrators. They scream ‘Go home Gota’, ‘Go Gota Jail’, ‘Power to the people beyond parliament’ in black font, and are a popular backdrop for photographs. At the nearest junction, dozens were queuing up to climb a clock tower, as protest music blared through speakers kept on the road. 

A few yards away, the Presidential Secretariat, whose entrance was occupied by protesters for months, now resembles a public park hosting a carnival, with families seated in its lawns, a day after protesters broke its iron fences and stormed the building. The main staircase was crowded with people, some waving flags, others marvelling at the view of the ocean facing the building, and some others taking pictures of the building, or of themselves in it.  Protesters have set up a library in the space that was once the President’s office. Others were rushing in to see it. 

Jacob Fernando was holding a Sri Lankan flag and posing for a picture in front of the building. “This is unbelievable. I just wanted to be here today. This is the beginning of a new era for our country,” the 18-year-old said. Just outside, though, protesters were still agitating, for the 93 rd day, asking . Gotabaya to resign. For them, the struggle was not over. “Ayya [older brother, referring to former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa] tsunami, malli [younger brother Mr. Gotabaya] corona,” they chanted, as crowds repeated one of the popular slogans of the mass agitations.   

About four kilometres south, Temple Trees, the official residence of the PM, which was also occupied on Saturday, was as crowded. Many were seated on the walls, waving at passers-by. Rows of vehicles were parked outside, and families walked into the building, taking a break from the crisis. The crisis that led citizens to mount an unprecedented protest, occupy the buildings, and oust their powerful occupants.       

Meera Sreenivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo

Published on July 11, 2022
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