HomeWorldBeleaguered leaders in hiding, Sri Lankans ask: What's next?

Beleaguered leaders in hiding, Sri Lankans ask: What’s next?

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s political and economic crisis offered a peculiar picture Sunday after a day of high drama: Protesters were everywhere, cooking in the prime minister’s garden and even lounging in the president’s room while the leaders were nowhere to be seen.

With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in hiding after indicating they would resign, it was unclear who ruled the country. But the thousands of people who have flooded the capital city Colombo since Saturday cared little: for months they had felt they were alone anyway as they queued for hours, often in vain, for fuel and gas to cook, reduced their meals and fought for the medicine that saved their lives.

Opposition leaders clamored to figure out Rajapaksa’s intentions.

Would he really resign on Wednesday, as officials said, or was his silence a sign that he was evaluating his options for a protracted fight? Discussions over who could succeed him were also taking shape, with the Speaker of Parliament seen as the likely choice as caretaker president.

But it is clear whoever takes the reins of government will be walking into a crisis, analysts said, inheriting a collapsing economy with no easy fixes and an exhausted and angry public.

On Sunday, however, protesters were busy relishing the apparent victory of poised to topple a powerful political dynasty that has ruled the country for much of the last two decades.

The British colonial-era building that served as President Rajapaksa’s official residence has effectively been turned into a free museum. The flow of visitors was so great, with people crammed into corridors and stairwells, that activists had to make calls to encourage people to visit the other main compounds they had invaded: the president’s offices and the prime minister’s residence.

“Open to the public” was painted on the walls of the prime minister’s residence in large, bright letters.

Sri Lanka’s downward spiral has unfolded against a background of global instability. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the economic sanctions against Moscow that followed, inflation, high energy prices and food shortages have affected much of the world. Even before that, the pandemic had disrupted the supply chain.

Sri Lanka once held itself up as a potential economic success story for other developing nations to consider, and regional powers have vied for influence over the island nation of 22 million. But its economy has been sinking for months, weighed down by heavy government debt linked to huge infrastructure projects of questionable usefulness. The pandemic also wiped out the country’s crucial tourism revenue.

Now Sri Lanka has become more of a cautionary tale.

On Sunday, as Army guards quietly patrolled the halls of the presidential mansion, some visitors admired the beautiful artwork, chandeliers and elaborately painted ceilings. Others lay on the president’s four-poster bed or peered into teak cupboards or kitchen cabinets where a man was cooking rice in a large wok. Damage, if any, appeared minimal, apart from some graffiti urging the president to resign, some remnants of plastic bottles, several lowered curtains, and some slightly crooked paintings.

The protesters helped pick up rubbish from the mansion, sweep the floors, water the plants, and even returned to the police around 17 million rupees, almost $50,000, that they had found in the mansion, after counting the notes.

Deepa Ranawara, her husband and their two children were among those enjoying the festive atmosphere. The family of four, who are not usually activists, walked 15 miles to and from their home to the mansion on both Saturday and Sunday, leaving Ms Ranawara struggling to stand up because her legs were so sore.

“People have suffered too much,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen in Sri Lanka.”

Ms. Ranawara and her husband took out a bank loan two years ago to open a corner store selling basic goods (milk, sugar, rice, eggs) to supplement their income by painting cars and paying for their daughter’s tutoring while they prepared for the most important matters. final exams. Now, months after Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, the couple are struggling to pay off the loan and restock shelves.

“Now we eat maybe twice a day,” Ranawara said. “We don’t even think about fish or meat.”

For more than two years, Mohammad Imran’s two children have not been able to attend school regularly in Colombo. First it was the pandemic. Now, it is the economic crisis. Fuel has become scarce and the cost of everything from food to transportation has skyrocketed.

Mr. Imran cut back on expenses such as taking his family out for dinner once a week, but he wanted to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim holidays, with his children on Sunday. He borrowed gasoline to refuel his motorcycle and took Barerah, 11, and Thameem, 5, to the presidential residence.

Looking out over the majestic grounds, he said, “Seeing the kind of lifestyle he had, I think it’s good for his education.”

The protesters blame President Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family in general, who held key positions in his government, for their misery.

Facing growing unrest over the past year, the Rajapaksas initially denied that the economy was collapsing. When protesters took to the streets in the spring, the president tried to offer gradual compromises, asking his family members to leave their government posts and reshuffling his cabinet. Even after protesters forced his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to resign in May, the president continued to defy calls for him to step down.

On Saturday night, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament, a Rajapaksa ally, said the president had told him he would resign on Wednesday. But neither Mr. Rajapaksa nor other officials around him have said so directly.

Security officials and political leaders close to the president have kept quiet about his whereabouts, citing ignorance or not answering calls. But Colombo was abuzz with rumors that the president had moved to a military base outside the capital. Those rumors followed speculation on Saturday, sparked by videos of luggage being rushed onto a naval ship and government vehicles speeding toward the airport, that the president had left town.

In the line of succession established by the Sri Lankan Constitution, Mr. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, would normally become the interim president. Many people believed that he was preparing for that possibility, but on Saturday, Mr. Wickremesinghe announced his intention to resign as well. The fury against him is such that his private residence was set on fire.

That leaves Abeywardena, the 76-year-old speaker of parliament, as the likely interim leader.

“The constitutional position is that if the president resigns and there is no prime minister, the speaker of parliament can act as president for a period of one month,” said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a professor of political science at the University of Colombo.

The interim president will have one month to organize the election of a president from among the members of Parliament. The winner will complete the two years remaining in Mr. Rajapaksa’s term before the election, analysts said.

Mr. Uyangoda said that both the new president and the new prime minister, who will also come from Parliament, would be falling into a “crisis trap”.

While the protests have focused on abuses by the long-dominant Rajapaksa family, protesters are just as frustrated with infighting within the broader political class. The organizers want the powers of the executive curtailed, and they want more accountability and checks and balances in government.

Mr. Uyangoda said that the new leaders would find it difficult to keep any promises due to the overwhelming economic crisis.

“The entire political class has also lost public trust,” he said. There is a “contradiction between the political class and politically awakened citizens. Unless this contradiction is resolved constructively, we will continue to see instability.”

emily schmal reported from Colombo and Mojib Masal from New Delhi. Skandha Gunasekara contributed reporting from Colombo.

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