Security Forces Raid Anti-Government Protest Camp
Sri Lankan security forces raided and evacuated part of a protest camp occupying government sites in the capital Colombo early Friday, a sign that the country’s new president was cracking down a day after he was sworn in.
Media footage showed soldiers in riot gear and armed with assault rifles tearing down the camp set up in April by protesters furious at the country’s economic collapse that has caused severe shortages of fuel, food and medicine.
“A joint operation involving the military, police and special police forces was launched in the early hours to get the presidential secretariat back from the protesters, as they have no legal right to hold it,” police spokesman Nalin said. Thalduwa to Reuters.
“Nine people, including two injured, have been arrested.” Protesters had feared a crackdown was imminent under new president Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was seen as an ally of his ousted predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
According to the organizers of the protests, hundreds of security personnel surrounded the “Gota Go Gama” protest camp, derisively named after Rajapaksa, after midnight and then took part of it apart.
By daybreak, dozens of troops marched through the area, clearing rows of protest tents on either side of the main road that runs in front of the president’s office. Dozens of protesters stood by and watched newly erected barricades and security personnel.
At least 50 protesters were injured, organizers said, including some journalists who were beaten by security forces. Hospital sources said two had been hospitalized.
“They beat us really brutally,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but appeared not to be injured. “Mr. Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”
Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency since Monday. Previous emergency ordinances have been used to give the military powers to detain and arrest protesters, as well as curtail the right to protest.
Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, was sworn in on Thursday after winning a parliamentary vote this week, following the resignation of Rajapaksa who fled to Singapore in the wake of massive public protests sparked by the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
The president is expected to appoint Rajapaksa ally Dinesh Gunewardena as prime minister later on Friday, along with a new cabinet.
After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel made their way in front of the presidential secretariat, began dismantling some tents and attacked protesters, protest organizer Manjula Samarasekara said.
Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible within the perimeter of the building seized by protesters earlier this month, along with the official residences of the president and prime minister. The houses were later returned to the government.
Protest organizer Chameera Dedduware told Reuters they planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police say they have no information about it.
“The excessive force and force used to remove protesters is a marked difference to what Sri Lanka needs now, especially when the protesters have already said they will leave the premises,” said Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher at the Colombo-based think tank. Center for Policy Alternatives.
Sri Lanka’s Bar Association said the crackdown could destabilize the country, which needs foreign aid and a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.
“Using the armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the very first day of the new president taking office is despicable and will have serious consequences for the social, economic and political stability of our country,” the lawyers’ collective said in a statement. .
US and British diplomats have also expressed concerns. “We urge authorities to exercise restraint and immediate access to medical care for the injured,” US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said on Twitter.