Conflicts & War

Protesters turn Sri Lankan president’s office into public library

By Indira Guerrero

Colombo, Jul 19 (EFE).- A hand-painted sign hangs outside the secretariat of the Sri Lankan president, saying “this is now a library,” and thus notifying the passersby that the colonial-era complex – which was stormed by thousands of protesters on on Jul. 9 – no longer houses any officials, only books.

The sea-facing colonial building built in 1930 was taken over by protesters angered by the severe economic crisis afflicting Sri Lanka, as they broke security barriers and stormed the secretariat, the prime minister’s office and the presidential palace.

Ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to vacate his residence, and later flee the country and resign from his post as protests raged against him across the country.

Days later, the demonstrators agreed to return control of most of the government facilities – after days of walking all over the presidential palace and taking pictures – but the presidential secretariat in the heart of Colombo remains in their hands as the symbolic trophy of the unprecedented popular revolt.

Two rows of chairs and a collection of around 40,000 books donated by protesters now occupy the entrance hall of the neo-baroque building, constructed during the British colonial era and once used as the legislative council of Ceylon (the island’s colonial name).

Statues of DS Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawela, the first leaders of Ceylon, have been covered with masks, while a black flag and a banner hailing the “march of the people’s struggle” now greet visitors at the century-old building.

“What we have here is the only library in the world that was created by protesters for the people of the country, this is the library of love, because the battle we had was the battle of love,” Prathiba, the voluntary librarian who now looks after the facility, told EFE.

After over a week of protesters storming the seats of power, around 500,000 people have visited the building since the library was opened.

“Sometimes the building is so full that we can’t even breathe,” another volunteer said, having worked long hours as thousands of people line up outside to get a peek at the people’s library.

The building is close to one of the main sit-in camps of anti-government protesters, who have occupied the area for over 100 days and often turn up at the secretariat in the afternoon to read a magazine of take a nap.

The library is the latest center of attraction for the capital, even as most activities in the country have been shut down due to the lack of fuel and the economic crisis.

Locals often show up to take photos with the symbols of the revolt, see the inside of the building or make videos for social media.

“This building was presidential secretariat, like the heart of this country, all the documents and valuable things were here, but for 75 years we didn’t get anything for the people from this building. What we wanted to do was give something to our people,” Prathiba said.

All the titles in the library – with subjects as wide ranging as mythology, law, Buddhism, old cosmetics catalogues and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” – have been marked with the movement’s slogan: “Go Home Gota,” referring to Rajapaksa.

Having secured the ex-president’s resignation, the protesters have said they will return the building to the government, but only when a non-corrupt government comes to power.

The acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had been appointed prime minister by Rajapaksa, remains widely unpopular among the dissenters, although he is one of the three candidates in the presidential polls, set to be held in the parliament on Wednesday.

The librarian said that if Wickremesinghe won the presidency, the library – “probably the first to be opened to public in a presidential secretariat” = would remain open for the people. EFE


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