He had been elected on the back of a chauvinistic roar of ultranationalism. But in the end Sri Lanka’s strongman president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was reduced to making a meek, humiliating escape under the cover of darkness, refusing to even address his own people before he fled.
As Sri Lankans awoke to the news on Wednesday morning that their beleaguered president had departed to the Maldives on an air force jet on the day he had promised to finally resign after months of protests, the mood in the country was one partly of relief, and partly of rage.
“What an absolute coward,” said Sineth Hindle, 27. “Gotabaya filled his pockets with our money, bankrupted our county and then ran away. He must be held accountable.”
According to assurances made by Rajapaksa, Wednesday would be the day that he would step down, after months of protests calling for him to do so. Yet as morning dragged on into night, there was still no word on the absentee president’s promised resignation, putting the country in an unprecedented state of political limbo. By late night, Rajapaksa was reported to be on his way to Singapore.
On the streets of Colombo, where people gathered in their thousands to pressure both the president and prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to step down to make way for a new government, the frustration mounted as the day went on.
“We will be here all night: for days, even years, if we have to, to make sure that president Rajapaksa resigns,” said Nilakshika Chamanthi, 32, who sat on the grass outside the presidential executive.
As a flight attendant for Sri Lanka airlines she said she had seen over the years the privileges that were at the disposal of the Rajapaksa family; first Mahinda, who was president between 2005 and 2015, and then Gotabaya who was elected in 2019.
“They had two fleets of planes on standby at their disposal whenever they wanted, all the luxuries and VIP comfort anyone could dream of,” said Chamanthi. “They have always wasted the money of this country on themselves, with no care for others. I voted for him but now I see that he is nothing but a thief who has brought this country to the darkest depths.”
As president since November 2019, Rajapaksa, along with his powerful family, are accused of mismanaging the economy, imposing ultranationalist policies that divided the country down ethnic lines and indulging in widespread corruption virtually bankrupting the once prosperous island in the process.
There is barely a citizen who has not been left suffering; desperate tuk-tuk drivers speak of spending five days in the queue for petrol and NGOs have issued warnings that the country could soon be facing a famine-like situation, so concerning are the problems of food shortages and inflation. On the night that Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives, where he was kept in luxury on a five-star island resort, the price of bread went up another 20 rupees, putting it out of the reach of even more Sri Lankans.
It was a shortage of fuel and food that first drove Sri Lankans out on to the streets back in April. But it has gradually built into an unprecedented diverse people’s movement, now known as Aragalaya, demanding systemic political and social change for a country that for so long has been fractured down ethnic lines.
On Wednesday, anger began to mount after it was announced that caretaker prime minister Wickremesinghe, who has only been in place for two months, had been deemed “acting president” by Rajapaksa before he left.
Some noted the irony that after months of public demands to abolish the executive presidency, instead on Wednesday the country now appeared to have two presidents, both lacking legitimacy and support. Wickremesinghe, who has been a constant in Sri Lankan politics for more than four decades and been prime minister five times previously, stands accused of being a protector and apologist for the Rajapaksa family.
By the afternoon, crowds in Colombo began to surge towards the prime minister’s office to make it clear that a Wickremesinghe presidency, no matter how temporary, was not acceptable to the Sri Lankan people. They were met with a thick wall of military and police officers, who began firing water cannons and shooting teargas at the crowds with abandon, with one protester dying from breathing problems.
But dousing their faces with water, the protesters persisted and in a matter of hours, they had clambered over the gates, surged into the hallowed corridors and claimed the prime minister’s offices as their own, just as they had done with the president’s residential palace and offices on Saturday, a move which forced Rajapaksa to resign.
“Ranil is a fraud, that’s why we came here and took over his office,” said Shaskia Sylvester, 33, as he stood triumphantly on the porch. “There was a lot of teargas, water cannons, a lot of police and military, but we overcame it all. We are standing here to send a message that we will not stop fighting for our rights and our freedom from corrupt leaders.”
By late Wednesday evening, Wickremesinghe had said he would hand over power to a prime minister candidate put forward by the opposition parties, but not before he had described the protesters as “fascists” and “extremists”.
Large crowds also gathered outside Sri Lanka’s parliament, where protesters were also hit with teargas by police. But inside the presidential palace, where Rajapaksa had lived until he fled to a military base on Saturday morning, the mood was calm.
The footage of protesters taking over the palace on Saturday, jumping in his pool and taking a workout on his running machines, have been some of the most defining images of the prolonged protest movement in Sri Lanka, and people continued to queue in their droves, some travelling hundreds of miles to take a look inside.
Amount them were four nuns from a convent in Colombo, who were among many members of the Sri Lankan clergy who have been proactive in the anti-government protests.
“This is a huge moment in the history of Sri Lanka and it feels significant to get a chance to visit this historical place when we get the chance,” said sister Kathleen. “This wasn’t just the home of Gotabaya, but so many leaders. But when we see the luxurious life they were living, of course we feel sad when we compare it to the fact that people in this country are now starving and dying in queues for petrol. I feel very proud that this has been reclaimed by the people.”
Namal Gunawardhana, 22, was among the team who had designated themselves guardians of the property, restricting the number of people who were entering at any one time and sleeping on the floor to make sure nothing was stolen.
“If the president resigns, we will immediately evacuate the palace and give it back: this belongs to the government, we know that,” said. “But until that happens, we will be staying here.”
As night drew in, the steps of the presidential secretariat, formerly Rajapaksa’s office, became a makeshift concert stage and platform for speeches that showed no sign of abating.
“We stand for peaceful protest: that is our right,” roared a protester into the microphone. We stand for love: love for this country, not like Ranil Wickremesinghe’s love for power and the presidency. We will continue this struggle, to finally build a country we can collectively be proud of.”
July 14, 2022 at 12:36AM Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Colombo