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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Inside Temple Trees: Prime minister’s bungalow becomes Sri Lanka’s seed of resistance

A cross-section of society has descended upon side-lined premier’s residence to prevent his removal

Around the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Clombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
Around the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Clombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

Thushara Wanniarachchi, the sleep-deprived director of digital media for the embattled Sri Lankan prime minister, has not been home in seven days.

The jovial staffer for Ranil Wickremesinghe has slept a few hours each night on the sofa in his office at Temple Trees, the official prime minister’s residence in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo.

But why is he staying at the compound and not at home?

“To be careful of my life. They are crazy. They have money,” he says ominously, referring to the allies of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the feared populist who is trying to replace his boss.

Thousands of supporters, including government officials, local council and grassroots members from Mr Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, have descended on the compound to protect their leader from what they say is a coup.

President Maithripala Sirisena last week did what critics say exceeded his powers, appointing Mr Rajapaksa without parliamentary or voter approval.

The ousted premier’s security team has been cut from 1,000 to just 10 trusted confidants, most of them former police officers. At the main checkpoint into Temple Trees, Mr Wickremesinghe’s guards use walkie talkies to communicate with others in the compound.

The siege mentality here makes for a tense atmosphere. Suspicious stares from defenders greet you as you pass the Buddhist flag at the entrance to the compound.

Uniformed police, who cannot enter the complex, watch from a sheltered bus stop, feeding information back to the president’s team from the shadows. Only those with party IDs can enter. Foreigners are not allowed in after dark.

Around the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
Around the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

In the side streets around the compound, young men stand their ground. Coaches, tuk-tuks and cars are parked in lines of defence to prevent a takeover of the residence.

Others cook tilapia and bread and play Sinhalese songs to pass the time on the edge of Lake Gangarama, which lies next to the residence.

“Muslims, Tamils, Buddhists – everyone is coming together to protect our prime minister,” says Gayani, 40, a Sinhalese member of the provincial council.

The situation is calm but those here say it could change fast. On Friday, a Rajapaksa supporter tried to enter the compound and cause trouble.

There was an altercation and he ran away, members of the security detail say. But the people inside Temple Trees are aware that they are being watched at all times.

To reach Mr Wanniarachchi’s media hub, you must get through a checkpoint manned by Mr Wickremesinghe’s security detail, be accredited at a check-in desk, pass through airport-like scanners, take an elevator to the third floor and then climb two sets of stairs.

The digital media room is an isolated place, like the man the staff are working for. Unused hard-drives and boxes lie around empty desks and volunteers come and go as they wish.

The new government has restricted money to those still here. Electricity cuts in and out and generators are being used to maintain power. There is no longer an internet connection.

The result is that a Dunkirk-like spirit has emerged among the thousands of supporters protecting the complex.

People come and go, handing out Chinese rolls filled with fish, water, coffee, and other amenities to those camped here. The main function hall, typically reserved for celebrations of ministers, is now a dormitory. It is quiet in the morning but half fills at night, with a big screen broadcasting ministerial press conferences.

A big function room where supporters of ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe are sleeping and taking shifts in turn in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
A big function room where supporters of ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe are sleeping and taking shifts in turn in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

Men sleep in the corner, readying for the night shift. They take turns at guard duty to ensure 24-hour cover.

The people here are praying for democracy to triumph. But Mr Sirisena has suspended parliament until November 16, leaving defenders of the Temple Trees waiting. Mr Wickremesinghe has reiterated his message that he retains the confidence of parliament, which must convene immediately.

To that end, officials here are unclear on what their strategy should be as there is still no set date for a parliamentary vote.

More than 20,000 supporters gathered at the site on October 30, where Mr Wickremesinghe addressed them to condemn the power grab.

“We are standing against it. Protect the democracy that people are committed to. Until people are organised, the Temple Trees was made as the symbol of democracy,” he said.

Temple Trees has history as a site of resistance. It was the focus of a campaign against the British governor of Ceylon in the 19th century Matale Rebellion, a coup was prevented there in 1962 and former Sri Lankan prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was rushed there in 1971 after an assassination plot against her was uncovered.

Inside the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
Inside the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

But for now, momentum has slowed as the crisis has gone on.

Some volunteers lament at how their country is set to back-slide if the Temple Trees resistance does not win out. “It is a virtual democracy. Democracy is no more here,” one says.

Last week, their democratically elected leader was in power. Now, his future is uncertain and his supporters cannot fathom how or why.

They speak of “illegality” and MPs taking money to join Mr Rajapaksa’s side. One minister says he turned down a $2.8 million offer. There are whispers among supporters that the money is coming from China, a key backer of the returning strongman. The sense of injustice is palpable.

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Read more:

Colombo on edge as Sri Lanka faces constitutional crisis

Sri Lanka crisis: everything you need to know

Sri Lanka political crisis splits allies

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The man everyone is here for, their leader, remains elusive. Aides say he is too busy working to convene parliament. Ministers instead deliver press conferences from the complex.

“It’s a national phenomenon,” Ajith Perera, state minister for power, tells The National. “The party supporters are courageous. They simply said ‘we will protect you, sir’. They are protecting the prime minister as a symbol of democracy.”

Outside his white bungalow, supporters stand around, almost not knowing what to do with themselves. To the side of his house are the Temple trees after which the residence is named after: small frangipanis in front of gardens a green that only a monsoon can create.

Buddhist monks sit under a white canopy surrounded by candles, singing around the clock. Those here say they feel protected by the religious songs but it is also a ploy to prevent a military takeover.

While the monks’ chanting may not protect those here forever, Sri Lanka has found itself a new home of resistance and protest, like the squares of Tahrir, Taksim and Trafalgar.

And whatever happens to Mr Wickremesinghe, the thousands at Temple Trees have refused to allow Sri Lanka’s first coup attempt for more than six decades to pass without challenge, planting the seed of resistance for whatever is to come.