Sri Lankan Protesters Wander Halls After President Flees

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-07-10 17:56:08 : Emily Schmall

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Hundreds of people walk around a makeshift protest camp erected outside the presidential mansion, the morning after it was stormed by largely peaceful protesters.

Some people wave Sri Lankan flags, others hold children’s hands. They greet each other with smiles. The ebullient mood makes it feel like a national holiday.

“What did we do when they didn’t give us fuel?” a man shouts through a bullhorn, “We walked to Colombo, didn’t we?”

“Yes!” the crowd responds.

“Did them cutting fuel stop us from coming to Colombo?”

“No!”

Hours after protesters took control of the British colonial-era building, it has effectively become a free museum. People stream in as Army guards quietly patrol the halls. They admire the fine art work, the chandeliers and the elaborately painted ceilings.

They also recline on couches in the main hall, sit around the grand dining table and peek into kitchen cabinets and teak armoires. A man cooks rice in a large wok. Aside from some graffiti urging the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign, some plastic bottle debris, and a few paintings slightly askew, the space is tidy.

Mr. Rajapaksa, who fled the residence before the demonstrators arrived, has agreed to step down, according to an ally. But the president has remained silent, not appearing or speaking in public as of Sunday afternoon.

Back at the mansion, in a spacious bedroom, a group of young men is sprawled across the bed. People rifle through the wardrobes for any clothing worth taking and examine the bathroom fixtures. The damage seems minimal; people seem mainly interested in photographing themselves where the president lived.

But the building has had too many visitors and the air has become stuffy. So, some people cool off in the president’s pool.

Nearby, inside the antechamber of the secretariat, a separate building that houses the president’s office, people mill around examining piles of used books and political pamphlets. A black banner hung on the doorframe announces that the space has been converted into a “people’s library.”

The other entrances of the ornate, columned building, where Sri Lankan flags jut out of windows shattered in Saturday’s takeover, are protected by Army guards in camouflage uniforms.

“Big building with full on arm guard for what?” said Izuru Rajakaruna, 33, a hotel manager who quit his job three weeks ago to join the protest. “We have to use this building. These days there are no schools. So the children can come here and learn something.”

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