Thousands of Sri Lankan protesters stormed into the president’s official residence in Colombo on Saturday, demanding his resignation as public anger grows over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
Soldiers and police were unable to hold back the crowd of chanting protesters, who also forced their way through heavy metal gates into the Finance Ministry and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sea-front offices.
Rajapaksa left the official residence on Friday as a safety precaution ahead of the planned weekend demonstration, two defence ministry sources said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held talks with several political party leaders and they were due to convene a meeting organised by parliament’s speaker to decide what steps to take following the unrest.
Wickremesinghe has also been moved to a secure location, a government source said.
A Facebook livestream from inside the president’s house showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in the national flag, packing into rooms and corridors.
Video footage showed some of them splashing in the swimming pool while others sat on a four-poster bed and sofas. Some could be seen emptying out a chest of drawers in images that were widely circulated on social media.
Hundreds milled about in the grounds of the colonial-era white-washed presidential residence, with no security officials in sight.
At least 39 people, including two police officers, were injured and hospitalised during the protests, hospital sources said.
The Indian Ocean island of 22 million people is struggling under a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
Soaring inflation, which reached a record 54.6% in June and is expected to hit 70% in the coming months, has heaped hardship on the population.
Political instability could undermine Sri Lanka’s talks with the International Monetary Fund as it seeks a $3 billion bailout, the restructuring of some foreign debt and fund-raising from multilateral and bilateral sources to ease the dollar drought.
The crisis comes after COVID-19 hammered the tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers.
It has been compounded by the build-up of hefty government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on the import of chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture. The fertiliser ban was reversed in November.
However, many blame the country’s decline on economic mismanagement by Rajapaksa and there have been months of largely peaceful protests demanding his resignation.
Before breaking into the government buildings on Saturday, the protesters dismantled several police barricades in Colombo’s government district.
Police fired shots in the air but were unable to stop the angry crowd from surrounding the presidential residence, the witness said.
Despite a severe shortage of fuel that has stalled transportation services, demonstrators packed into buses, trains and trucks from several parts of the country to reach Colombo for the weekend demonstration.
Discontent has worsened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country stopped receiving fuel shipments, forcing school closures and rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services. read more
Sampath Perera, a 37-year-old fisherman, took an overcrowded bus from the seaside town of Negombo 45 km (30 miles) north of Colombo, to join the protest.
“We have told Gota (Rajapaksa) over and over again to go home but he is still clinging onto power. We will not stop until he listens to us,” Perera said.