‘Open to the public’: Sri Lankans create protest zones in occupied government buildings

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On July 9, 2022, thousands of Sri Lankans, exasperated by the country's economic crisis, stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other places linked to power. The situation is still uncertain in the country, but the movement is ongoing: in the capital, Colombo, protesters have turned several of these symbolic buildings into protest sites where meals and concerts are being organised.

Sri Lanka's presidential palace and prime minister's residence were still occupied by protesters on Monday 11 July. Two days earlier, the country was thrown into turmoil after major protests erupted in the capital Colombo.

Forced to flee, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to resign. But the protesters who stormed their residences and the presidential secretariat said they would wait until the resignations were formalised before leaving.

In the meantime, these buildings have been transformed into spaces for exchange and protest. On social networks, protesters are filming themselves taking over the luxurious, colonial-era mansions. They play grand pianos, take selfies on four-poster beds and enjoy the swimming pool at the president's residence.

On Sunday, the inscription "Open to the public" was written on a wall at the entrance to "Temple Trees", the name given to the prime minister's official residence. Sri Lankans flocked there, sometimes with their families. The protesters asked them not to steal or damage anything and to treat the occupied buildings as "museums".

Photos show protesters trying to keep the presidential palace grounds clean, picking up rubbish and sweeping the floor. Some organised concerts and card games. Others set up a collective kitchen on July 10: several videos show protesters working in front of huge pots filled with rice, cutting vegetables or serving others.

On the afternoon of July 11, the grounds of the residence were still full of people. We were able to hold a video call with one of our Observers, who showed us the crowd of people there.

Another initiative was set up to help make these buildings accessible to all: protesters formed a human chain to transport books collected from the president’s residence to create a public library in the Sri Lankan parliament building. In all, they gathered 8,000 books in Sinhala, Tamil and English, according to AFP.

The luxury and splendour of the homes contrast sharply with the country’s disastrous economic situation. Sri Lanka, whose economy is mainly based on tourism, has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rising debt has led to a devaluation of the currency and a drop in imports, resulting in shortages of medicine, food and fuel. The crisis has left the island’s population in dire straits.

>> Read more on The Observers: People queue ‘more than 10 hours’ for fuel in crisis-stricken Sri Lanka

During the massive protests in Colombo on Saturday, an angry crowd set fire to the prime minister's private residence. Several people, including journalists, were injured when the police dispersed the protesters in the streets of Colombo.

On Monday, the Sri Lankan parliament released details about the transition of power, saying that a new president would be elected on July 20.

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