On Friday morning, Sri Lankan security forces raided a protest camp occupying government land in the main city of Colombo and emptied part of it, a sign that the country’s new president was cracking down a day after his performance of oath.
Army and police personnel arrived in trucks and buses around midnight, removing protest tents and banners from the site near the presidential palace in the capital, Colombo, where protesters gathered during of the last 104 days. They blocked the roads leading to the site and carried long poles.
Security forces witnessed the beatings of at least two journalists. The Sri Lanka Bar Association, the country’s main lawyers’ body, also said at least two lawyers were assaulted when they came to the protest site to offer advice. Its statement on Friday called for an end to “unjustified and disproportionate actions” by the armed forces against civilians.
“A joint operation involving the army, police and police special forces was launched in the early hours of the morning to recover the presidential secretariat from the protesters because they have no legal right to hold it,” the doorman told Reuters. – police spokesperson, Nalin Thalduwa. “Nine people, two of whom were injured, were arrested.”
Protesters feared a crackdown was imminent under new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, seen as an ally of his ousted predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Protest organizers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the “Gota Go Gama” protest camp, mockingly named after Rajapaksa, after midnight and then dismantled part of it.
At dawn, dozens of soldiers marched through the area and rows of protest tents that stood on both sides of the main road past the president’s office were completely cleared. Dozens of protesters stood there, watching the newly erected barricades and security personnel.
At least 50 protesters were injured, organizers said, including some journalists beaten by security forces. According to hospital sources, two people were hospitalized.
“They beat us really badly,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but did not appear hurt himself. “Mr. Wickremesinghe does not know what democracy is.”
Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency since Monday. Previous emergency regulations have been used to give the military the power to detain and arrest protesters and restrict the right to demonstrate.
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 following massive public protests sparked by the country’s worst economic crisis since seven decades.
Hours after the security crackdown, Dinesh Gunewardena, an ally of Rajapaksa, was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister.
The raid on the protest camp drew condemnation from Sri Lankan opposition figures and expressions of concern from the international community.
“Gravely concerned about the use of force to disperse protesters. Journalists and human rights defenders have the right to monitor protests and their functions must not be hampered,” said the UN Resident Coordinator for Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, in a post on Twitter.
Gravely concerned about the use of force to disperse protesters.
Journalists and human rights defenders have the right to monitor protests and their functions must not be hindered. pic.twitter.com/iqcXvzNtEC
— Hanaa Singer-Hamdy (@SingerHanaa) July 22, 2022
American and British diplomats have also expressed concern. “We call on the authorities for restraint and immediate access to medical care for the injured,” US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said on Twitter.
After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel moved in front of the presidential secretariat, began tearing down tents and assaulting protesters, protest organizer Manjula Samarasekara said.
Security forces appear to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more staff visible inside the perimeter of the building which was seized by protesters earlier this month, as well as the official residences of the President and Prime Minister. The residences were then returned to government authorities.
Protest organizer Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters they planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police said they had no information about it.
“The excessive force and violence used to evict protesters is a stark difference from what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially when protesters had already announced they would leave,” said Bhavani Fonseka. , senior researcher at the Colombo-based think tank. Center for Policy Alternatives.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the crackdown could destabilize the country, which needs foreign aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
“The use of the armed forces to suppress civil protests from the first day in office of the new president is despicable and will have serious consequences for the social, economic and political stability of our country,” the collective of lawyers said in a statement. communicated.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)