By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Hundreds of Sri Lankans jostled Monday to use the vast array of exercise machines in the private gym of the presidential palace, lifting weights and running on treadmills inside a facility that was, until now, the exclusive domain of the country’s beleaguered president.
For many who had traveled on overcrowded trains and buses from outside the capital, Colombo, this was the first time they had laid eyes on a residence so grand. The colonial-era structure was a staggering sight, with airy verandas, plush living rooms and spacious bedrooms, a garden swimming pool and neatly manicured lawns.
On Saturday, thousands of angry Sri Lankans descended on the residence in fury against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who they blame for an unprecedented economic meltdown that has throttled the lives of the nation’s 22 million people. They turned over barriers and then swarmed the lawns to enter the palatial residence and occupy it.
Two days later, people continued to stream in, flocking to it like a tourist attraction, marveling at the paintings inside and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.
Alawwa Ralage Piyasena, a 67-year-old farmer who arrived by bus from outside Colombo, was stunned by the president’s gym. “I never thought I would get an opportunity to see these things,” he said, gesturing at the equipment while trying to hop onto a treadmill.
“Look at the pool and this gym. We can see how they enjoyed a life of luxury here while people struggled outside. Our families are suffering without food.”
The weekend saw the most dramatic escalation yet of the months-long protests against the country’s worst economic crisis, with protesters not only forcing their way into the presidential palace but also storming the prime minister’s official residence and setting fire to his private home.
The charged events led to both leaders agreeing to step down — Rajapaksa, who has not been seen publicly or heard from since, said he would leave office Wednesday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would depart as soon as opposition parties agree on a unity government.
But protest leaders have said they will not leave the official buildings until both actually resign.
For months, demonstrators have camped outside Rajapaksa’s office, demanding he quit for severely mismanaging the economy. Many have accused him and his powerful, dynastic family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for nearly two decades, of corruption and policy blunders that tipped the island nation into crisis.
People’s patience has grown increasingly thin, with the crisis sparking shortages of fuel, medicine, food and cooking gas. Authorities have temporarily shuttered schools, while the country relies on aid from India and other nations as it tries to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.
Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
The severe fuel shortage has choked transport, forcing many to use public buses, trains and even bicycles to get around. Hundreds of people held onto the roofs of overcrowded trains to make the journey to the presidential palace.
At first, thousands stormed the residence in rage, waving the national flag and chanting “Gota Go Home!” But since Rajapaksa announced he would resign, many of those arriving now were jubilant, strolling the vast residence as sightseers. Inside and outside the complex, scores of unarmed policemen patrolled the area — but did not stop the deluge of crowds from coming in.