Will Ranil Wickremesinghe move into palace stormed by Sri Lankan protesters?

Having been sworn in as president, he is entitled to stay in official residence that became a 'tourist attraction' during demonstrations

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Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka's new president on Thursday — less than two weeks after protesters stormed the presidential residence in Colombo.

He will serve in the position until the end of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa's term in 2024.

This means the President's House, a building that has become a symbol of the protest movement raging in the country for more than 100 days, could now become Mr Wickremesinghe's home.

On July 9, hundreds of demonstrators stormed the palace, rooting through drawers containing Mr Rajapaksa's belongings, exploring bedrooms, eating picnics in the vast gardens and swimming in the presidential pool.

Millions of Sri Lankan rupees found in the property by protesters were handed over to a court on Monday.

Demonstrators said they would occupy the site until the country's leaders resigned, but it turned into something of a tourist destination.

Ordinary Sri Lankans came to look at the opulence of the presidential palace, in contrast to the hardship faced by much of the population during the country's economic crisis.

Mr Rajapaksa fled the country to Singapore last week.

Now the clean-up has begun. Photos released last week showed police dusting surfaces for fingerprints, staff hanging paintings that had been torn off the wall and broken furniture being repaired.

The pool has been returned to its blue hue, after hundreds of people frolicked there last week.

Mr Wickremesinghe, who was serving as prime minister — his sixth term in the job — before he became president, has not yet confirmed if he intends to move into the sprawling complex.

But he will need a base, after his home in Colombo was burnt to the ground by protesters on July 9.

The protest movement that pushed out Mr Rajapaksa — the first sitting Sri Lankan president to quit office — remained largely muted, following Mr Wickremesinghe's election as president. He secured the votes of 134 MPs from the country's 225-member Parliament.

Mr Wickremesinghe is unpopular with some Sri Lankans due to his close ties to the powerful Rajapaksa family, that has dominated politics in the country for decades.

Only a handful of people were present outside the Presidential Secretariat on Thursday. The president's office, dating from the British colonial era, was stormed by a sea of protesters earlier this month along with the president and prime minister's official residences.

But some members of the protest movement have vowed to oppose Mr Wickremesinghe.

“We won't give up because what the country needs is a total system change,” said Pratibha Fernando, a protester at the secretariat. “We want to get rid of these corrupted politicians, so that's what we are doing.”

Hours after winning the parliamentary vote, Mr Wickremesinghe appeared to distance himself from the Rajapaksa family.

“I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas. I am a friend of the people,” he said, after praying at a Buddhist temple in Colombo.

Mr Wickremesinghe, who served as prime minister and finance minister under Mr Rajapaksa, has been involved in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bail out package worth up to $3 billion.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 12:28 PM
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