Hidden leaders of Sri Lankans ask: what’s next?

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka. The political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka showed a peculiar picture on Sunday afternoon high drama: The protesters were everywhere, cooking in the prime minister’s garden and even relaxing in the president’s bedroom, and the leaders were nowhere to be seen.

With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both went into hiding after announcing they would resign, it was not clear who was running the country. But that hasn’t mattered much to the thousands of people who have flooded the Colombo capital since Saturday: For months they have felt left to their own devices as they queued for hours – often in vain – for fuel and cooking gas. cut your food and fought for a life-saving cure.

Opposition leaders demanded to decipher Mr. Rajapaksha’s Intentions.

Will he really quit on Wednesday as officials said, or was his silence a sign that he was considering options for a protracted battle? Discussions about who might succeed him were also taking shape, with the Speaker of Parliament seen as the likely choice as interim president.

But it is clear that whoever takes the reins will face a crisis, analysts say, inheriting a collapsed economy with no easy solutions and a tormented and furious public.

On Sunday, however, protesters were busy enjoying an apparent victory on the verge of overthrowing the powerful political dynasty that has ruled the country for much of the past two decades.

The British colonial-era building that served as the official residence of President Rajapaksa has effectively become a free museum. The flow of visitors was so great, people crowded tightly into the halls and stairwells, that the activists had to urge people to visit the other main complexes they seized: the offices of the president and the residence of the prime minister.

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

The downward spiral of Sri Lanka is unfolding against the backdrop of global instability. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent economic sanctions against Moscow, inflation, high energy prices and food shortages have affected much of the world. Even before that, the pandemic disrupted the supply chain.

Sri Lanka was once seen as a potential economic success story for other developing countries to look forward to, with regional powers vying for influence over the island nation of 22 million. But its economy took months to build, weighed down by huge public debt tied to huge infrastructure projects of dubious utility. The pandemic has also wiped out the country’s critical 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 patrons marveled at the artwork, chandeliers and ornately painted ceilings. Others stretched out on the president’s four-poster bed, or peeked into the teak cabinets or cupboards in the kitchen, where a man was cooking rice in a large wok. Damage, if any, seemed minimal, except for a few graffiti urging the president to resign, pieces of plastic bottles, a few curtains drawn down, and a few paintings that were slightly skewed.

The protesters helped take out the rubbish from the mansion, sweep the floors, water the plants, and even returned about 17 million rupees, almost $50,000, to the police, which they found in the mansion – after counting the banknotes.

Deepa Ranawara, her husband and their two children were among those who enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Not your typical activist, the family of four walked the 15 miles from their home to the mansion on both Saturday and Sunday, leaving Ms. J. Ranawara struggling to get up because her legs were in terrible pain.

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

RS. Two years ago, Ranawara and her husband took out a bank loan to open a corner shop selling basic necessities—milk, sugar, rice, eggs—to supplement their income by painting cars and paying for their daughter’s tuition as she studied for her important final exams. . Now, months after Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, the couple are struggling to pay off their loan and replenish store shelves.

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

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

mr. Imran cut expenses, such as taking the family out for dinner once a week, but wanted to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim holidays, with his children on Sunday. He borrowed some gasoline to fuel his motorcycle and took 11-year-old Barera and 5-year-old Tamim to the presidential residence.

Surveying the majestic grounds, he said, “Seeing the lifestyle he led, I feel it’s good for their education.”

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

In the face of growing unrest over the past year, the Rajapaks initially denied that the economy was collapsing. When protesters took to the streets in the spring, the president tried to offer gradual compromises by asking his family members to leave their government posts and shuffling his cabinet. Even after protesters forced his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to resign in May, the president continued to ignore their calls for his resignation.

Late Saturday night, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, an ally of Rajapaksa, said the president had told him he would step down on Wednesday. But neither Mr. Rajapaksa nor the other officials from his entourage spoke directly about this.

Security officials and political leaders close to the president remain silent on his whereabouts, professing their ignorance or not answering calls. But there were rumors in Colombo that the president had moved to a military base on the outskirts of the capital. The rumors followed Saturday’s rumors, sparked by video footage of luggage being delivered to a naval ship and government vehicles speeding towards the airport, that the president had left the city.

In the order of succession established by the Constitution of Sri Lanka, G. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, usually became the acting president. Many people thought he was preparing for just such an opportunity, but on Saturday, Mr. Wickremesinghe also announced his intention to retire. Such was the fury against him that his private residence was set on fire.

This leaves Mr. Abeywarden, the 76-year-old speaker of parliament, as the likely interim leader.

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

The acting president will have a month to organize the election of the president from among the deputies of parliament. The winner will play out the two years remaining in the Mr. Olympia competition. Analysts say Rajapaksa’s deadline is before the election.

mr. Uyangoda said that both the new president and the new prime minister, who will also come from parliament, would be in a “crisis trap”.

While the protests focused on the abuses in the Rajapaksa family, the demonstrators were also unhappy the struggle of the wider political class. The organizers want the power of the executive to be limited, and they want more accountability and checks and balances in government.

mr. Uyangoda said it would be difficult for the new leaders to deliver on any promises due to the severe economic crisis.

“The entire political class has also lost public confidence,” he said. There is “a contradiction between the political class and the politically awakened citizens. If this contradiction is not resolved constructively, we will continue to observe instability.”

Emily Schmall reported from Colombo and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi. Skandha Gunasekara provided a report from Colombo.