I linked to videos of the protestors in Sri Lanka occupying the official residence of the president and, like many people in Sri Lanka, was stunned at the opulence of the place. The residence is in the heart of the business district in Colombo and I must have passed by it hundreds of times but had never given much thought to what it was like inside. It is a large building and was protected by a high fence with a security guard at the gate. Since only one side of it is visible from the street, I had no idea how extensive the property was.
What the videos reveal is that it is very luxurious with large, well appointed rooms, nice gardens and a swimming pool. Even though the climate is tropical, private swimming pools are a luxury and rare in Sri Lanka and I do not know of anyone who has one. The daughter of a friend of mine was one of the people who entered with the protestors and she had told her mother how they too were stunned by what they saw.
We really should not have been surprised because the presidential residence was built by the British during colonial times for the use of the England’s representative in Sri Lanka, who was known as the Governor-General and the de facto ruler of the country prior to independence and the place was known as Queen’s House. You would expect that the British would not hesitate to use their colony’s money to make life as comfortable as possible for their representative.
After Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the office of Governor General was retained but became a figurehead head of state with a Sri Lankan holder of the office, playing only a ceremonial role with all power vested in the parliament and the prime minister. Technically, the Queen remained the Head of State and the Governor General was her representative. In 1973, the country became a republic and the Queen was no longer head of state. The Governor General title was switched to the president but it was was still a ceremonial position. In 1977, after a landslide victory, the new government created a new constitution that shifted the country from a British-style government to a French-style one, with a powerful executive president and a subordinate prime minister, which is what we have had since then.
While the protestors inside the presidential palace sat on the furniture, slept on the beds, cooked the food in the kitchen, and otherwise treated the place like their own homes, they were apparently under strict instructions not to damage anything because all of it was the property of the people and thus should be respected. The same respect was accorded to the official residence of the prime minister which was also occupied by protestors. They have said that they will occupy both places until a new president and prime minister are in place. The protestors apparently discovered Rs 17 million (about $100,000) in cash in the president’s house and handed it over to the police.
What is noteworthy is that the security forces that are supposed to protect the premises stopped doing so as soon as both the president and prime minister and their families had been evacuated from the buildings, and then they simply allowed the protestors free rein. They must have realized how futile it would have been to try and hold back the massive crowds. Both places, and the presidential offices, are now like open houses, with people wandering in and out freely.
The big exception was the setting fire to the prime minister’s private home. Why this happened is not clear. One reason may be that it was not an official residence. Another possibility is that the crowds were angered by him stating that he was not going to resign immediately. A third possibility is that the security forces protecting his house took a harder line on the protestors than at the official government residences and used tear gas and force and this inflamed the crowd. The simplest reason may be randomness, that when there are mass protests like this, all it takes is for a couple of individuals to decide to set fire to things.
At present, the whereabouts of the president and prime minister and their families are not publicly known. Sri Lanka is a country where rumors spread rapidly and there are reports that since the protestors were watching the road to the major airports, the president got on a navy ship. People were observed loading large suitcases onto one of the ships. The Colombo harbor is very close to the presidential palace and so that would be an easier escape route. Meanwhile in the US, people are picketing one of the president’s son’s house in Los Angeles, claiming that it was bought with money stolen from the country.
Things are still a mess. Getting rid of the Rajapaksa family and the prime minister were well-defined goals. Now that those have been achieved, the protestors are demanding that the Rajapaksa family be brought to justice for their massive human rights violations and their corruption, and for the recovery of the stolen money.
As to how to lift the country out of the abyss that it has sunk, that is going to be difficult and take time. One step is for the political parties to get together to form a new national government. That will not be easy because of the partisan wrangling. The protests also took place largely outside the control of the main political parties who are also viewed with suspicion, so forming a government that will be acceptable is not going to be easy.
Finally, there is the question of getting aid to solve the immediate crisis of massive shortages and then getting the country back on a reasonable economic footing. Even if all the negotiations with the international agencies go well, we are still talking about at least six months before we can see any positive signs.