Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe cracks down on civil unrest with police raids against protesters

A day after being sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe is cracking down on civil unrest with raids by security forces on the protest camps that ousted his predecessor.

The camps had been set up on government grounds more than three months ago, their occupants demanding then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign over an unprecedented economic collapse that has caused severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

Media footage showed riot-gear-clad soldiers armed with assault rifles tearing down tents and other makeshift structures outside the Presidential Secretariat in the capital, Colombo.

Protest organisers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the camp after midnight and dismantled a section of it. As daylight broke, dozens of troops marched through the rows of tents, clearing them out, and erecting their own barricades.

“A joint operation involving the military, police and police special forces was launched in the early hours to recover the Presidential Secretariat from the protesters as they have no legal right to hold it,” a police spokesperson said.

“Nine people, including two injured, have been arrested.”

Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible inside the building perimeter that was earlier this month seized by protesters, along with the president and prime minister’s official residences. The residences were later handed back to government authorities.

At least 50 protesters were injured in the raid, according to organisers, including some journalists who were beaten by security forces. Hospital sources said two were hospitalised.

“They beat us really cruelly,” said one protester who witnessed the raid.

“Mr Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”

Medics move an injured protester into the back of an ambulance van.
Protesters and paramedics carry an injured protester into an ambulance following the military’s crackdown on the camps.(Ap: Eranga Jayawardena)

Protesters had feared a crackdown was imminent under the newly minted President, who was seen as an ally of his ousted predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Mr Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, was sworn into office after winning a parliamentary vote this week, following the resignation of former president Rajapaksa who fled to Singapore in the wake of massive public protests triggered by the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.

Sri Lanka remains under a state of emergency

Amid the climate of political distrust he has inherited, the new president has named Dinesh Gunewardena — an ally of his predecessor — Prime Minister.

Protest organisers said  they had planned to hand over the Presidential Secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police said they had no information on that.

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“The excessive force and the violence used to remove protesters is a marked difference from what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially when the protesters had already said they will vacate the premises,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka warned the crackdown could destabilise the country, already in need of foreign aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

“The use of the armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new President is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability,” the collective of lawyers said in a statement.

US and British diplomats also expressed concern.

“We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, said on Twitter.

ABC/Wires