Sri Lankan security forces raided an anti-government protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo early Friday, according to two protest organisers, indicating that the country’s new president was cracking down a day after his inauguration. Soldiers armed with assault rifles attempted to demolish the camp while dozens of police officers stood by.
As dawn broke, dozens of troops in riot gear marched through the area, and the rows of protest tents on both sides of the main road that runs in front of the president’s secretariat were cleared out. Protesters feared a crackdown under new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, a close ally of his deposed predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Hundreds of security personnel surrounded the ‘Gota Go Gama’ protest camp, mockingly named after Rajapaksa, after midnight, according to protest organisers, and then tore it apart. At least 50 protesters were injured, according to organisers, including some journalists who were beaten by security forces. According to hospital sources, two people were admitted. ‘ It was a systematic and premeditated attack,’ protest organiser Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters. ‘People were brutally attacked. What has occurred is a blatant display of power’.
Police and army spokespeople did not immediately respond to Reuters’ calls. Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency in Sri Lanka on Sunday while acting president. Previous emergency regulations have been used to empower the military to detain and arrest protesters, as well as to limit 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 Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades. read more
Security personnel surrounded the protest camp, moved in front of the presidential secretariat, began dismantling some tents, and assaulted protesters, according to protest organiser Manjula Samarasekara. Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible inside the building perimeter, which was seized by protesters earlier this month, along with the president and prime minister’s official residences. The residences were later returned to government officials. According to Dedduwage, protesters planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government officials on Friday afternoon.
‘The various steps being taken, including declaring an emergency and mobilising troops, raise serious concerns about the government’s approach to fundamental rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka,’ said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based think tank Center for Policy Alternatives. ‘The excessive force and violence used to remove protesters are not what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially since the protesters have already stated that they will vacate the premises.’