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Protestors demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swim in a pool inside the compound of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace in Colombo on 9 July 2022.

Protestors demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swim in a pool inside the compound of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace in Colombo on 9 July 2022. (Photo by AFP, Getty Images)

Protesters Take Over Presidential Residence in Sri Lanka

Tensions in Sri Lanka reached boiling point over the weekend. In the most chaotic day so far in months of political turmoil, tens of thousands of protesters stormed the president’s residence and office, as well as the prime minister’s residence, setting fire to one of the buildings and occupying the facilities.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave office once a new government is in place, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa—who has been in office since 2019 and comes from a well-known political family—told government officials he would step down on 13 July. Rajapaksa’s current whereabouts are unknown.

The resignations and protests come amid an economic meltdown in the country. There have been power cuts, the cost of everyday goods has skyrocketed, inflation has hit more than 50 percent, and the health system is on the verge of collapse due to a lack of medicine, the BBC reported. The nation ran out of foreign currency needed to import fuel, so essential services like buses, trains, and medical vehicles are limited or out of service. Schools have closed, and the government asked people to work from home to conserve supplies. People wait in lines for hours to buy fuel and gasoline, according to the Associated Press.

The government blames the COVID-19 pandemic for its inability to repay foreign debts, but many experts say economic mismanagement and corruption are more likely culprits, according to the BBC. The nation imports $3 billion more than it exports every year, and it has racked up huge debts with countries including China to fund infrastructure projects that some critics deemed unnecessary. The country has racked up $51 billion in foreign debt in total, and it must pay pack $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Sri Lanka is relying on aid from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a complicated bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Bailouts are usually given to developing countries, not bankrupt ones.

Rajapaksa himself was blamed for many of the financial difficulties, especially after he introduced big tax cuts in 2019. The government is now so short on funds that Wickremesinghe said it will be printing money to pay employees’ salaries—which could lead to further price hikes.

Meanwhile, it is unclear who exactly is running Sri Lanka right now, which could further stall bailout negotiations and endanger lines of credit, The New York Times noted. Normally, the presidency would shift to the prime minister, but given Wickremsinghe’s resignation, the interim job shifts to the speaker of Parliament—Wajira Abeywardana. He will have one month to organize the election of a president from among members of Parliament. Meanwhile, opposition leaders are rushing to fill the political vacuum, strategizing how to share positions under a coalition government, NPR reported. However, any new president and prime minister are likely to inherit an avalanche of social and economic challenges.

But amid the economic turmoil, protesters are taking advantage of their hold on official residences. They have promised to continue to hold the presidential residence—posing for photos, partying in the pool, grilling on the lawn, and lounging on Rajapaksa’s bed—until the president officially resigns. Sri Lankan police and special troops stood by and watched the proceedings as protest organizers controlled the throngs of people coming in to see the compound.

Damage seemed limited to the compound, aside from some graffiti, and protesters helped pick up trash, sweep floors, and water plants in what is now essentially a public museum. They also returned around 17 million rupees (nearly $50,000) found at the mansion to the police.

The crisis in Sri Lanka is only one of many that are fueling widespread protests and civil unrest worldwide. Learn more in Security Management's recent coverage here: The World in Protests: From Climate to Inflation to Abortion