Thousands of women, men and children rush into the imposing residence. Some line up to sit on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s chair on the upper floor while on the ground floor children – and their parents – bang on the keys of a grand piano. .
In the imposing park, the “Gordon Gardens” named in memory of their designer Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, governor of Ceylon at the end of the 19th century, cheerful families picnic in the midst of Buddhist monks with shaved heads and in saffron robes marveling at the air conditioning and marble floors.
“When rulers live in such luxury, they have no idea how commoners are doing,” Sri Sumeda, a monk who traveled 50 km for his first visit to the palace, told AFP.
For him, “it shows what can be done when people decide to exercise their power”.
Sri Lanka is plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis marked by hyperinflation and multiple shortages, especially of food, fuel and medicine.
For months, protesters have been demanding the departure of the president, whose powerful family clan has dominated the country’s political life for decades.
Mr. Rajapaksa, 73, fled on Saturday through a door at the back of the palace, under military protection. A few minutes later, crowds of demonstrators broke through the gates, defying the police armed with live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons.
– “Do not damage the paintings” –
On Sunday, the president is still on a military ship off the country after announcing his resignation for Wednesday.
Heavily armed presidential guards still on duty mingle with the new visitors who have become masters of the place and even pose for selfies alongside them.
Families flock to take photos in front of overpriced works of art or decorative objects and jokes abound.
“Do not damage the paintings, it was not Gotabaya who painted them”, enjoin signs written by hand by student activists, at the forefront of the protest commonly referred to as “Aragalaya” – the fight.
Shortly after entering the palace, many dived into the presidential pool to cool off. Sunday, few are those who venture into the water which has become murky.
Buddhika Gunatillaka, 46, came by motorbike from a suburb of Colombo to discover the place, an area where ordinary mortals do not usually venture.
“I used gasoline that I had saved to make the trip with my wife, because we will never have the opportunity to visit the principal residence of Sri Lanka again,” he told AFP. AFP.
Here and there, traces of the fight to enter the day before persist.
– “He must leave now” –
Two police water cannons lie abandoned on the short stretch of road leading to the palace. Bullets, fired by the security forces to discourage demonstrators, left holes on a perimeter wall.
At the nearby presidential offices, where protesters smashed the wrought-iron fences, a makeshift library sits in the main entrance.
“I went to the protesters’ camp every day and I will not stop until Gotabaya has really left,” said Chamari Wickremasinghe, 49.
She participates in the occupation of the offices of the presidency which housed the Parliament until 1982. “We are not going to leave here”, she adds, “the promise to leave on July 13 is not enough. He has to go now.”
Library manager Supun Jayaweera, 33, said some 8,000 general literature books in Sinhalese, Tamil and English, all donations, have been collected and hope they will attract visitors.
On the 35 steps leading to the building overlooking the Indian Ocean, families are resting. Volunteers offer food to protesters and security forces.
A student chants anti-Rajapaksa slogans to warm up the growing crowd despite the fuel shortage that has been immobilizing public transport for many days.
“I hope that what happened on Saturday will serve as a lesson to future politicians,” remarks Mr. Gunatillaka. “You can’t oppress people forever. They fight back.”