Security forces demolish Sri Lanka’s main protest camp after new prime minister is sworn in

Dinesh Gunawardena was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister on Friday, the day after six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the country’s new president.
Sri Lankan security forces raided a protest camp occupying government compound in the main city of Colombo early Friday and cleared part of it, in a sign that the country’s new president has begun cracking down a day after being sworn in.

Media footage shows soldiers in riot gear and armed with machine guns demolishing a camp set up in April by protesters angered by the country’s economic collapse that has left fuel, food and medical supplies acute.

“In the early hours, a joint operation involving the military, police and police special forces was launched to free the presidential secretariat from the protesters, since they have no legal right to hold it,” police spokeswoman Nalin Thalduwa told Reuters.

“Nine people were detained, including two wounded.”

Why are people protesting?

The protesters feared that Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was seen as an ally of his ousted predecessor, Gotabay Rajapaksa, was imminent.

Protest organizers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the Gota Go Gama protest camp, derisively named after Mr Rajapaksa, after midnight and then dismantled part of it.

Sri Lankan protests

Police say nine people were arrested during the crackdown on a protest camp in Colombo. Source: A MONKEY / AP

As dawn broke, dozens of soldiers marched through the area, and the rows of protest tents that lined both sides of the main road that ran in front of the president’s office were completely destroyed.

Dozens of protesters stand to the side, looking at the newly built barricades and the security forces.

At least 50 protesters were injured, organizers said, including several journalists who were beaten by security forces. Hospital sources said two were hospitalized.

“They beat us very badly,” said Buddhika Abeiratne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but was unharmed. “Mr Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”

State of emergency declared

Sri Lanka has been in a state of emergency since Monday. Previous state of emergency rules have been used to give the military the power to detain and arrest protesters and restrict the right to protest.

Sri Lankan protests

Army soldiers stand guard as protesters and their tents are evacuated from a protest camp near the presidential secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Friday, July 22, 2022. Source: A MONKEY / AP

Mr Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, was sworn in on Thursday after winning parliamentary elections this week following the resignation of Mr Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore following massive public protests sparked by the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.

Who could be the next prime minister?

The president is expected to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa ally Dinesh Goonewarden as prime minister along with a new cabinet later on Friday.

According to protest organizer Manjula Samarasekara, after surrounding the protest camp, security personnel approached the presidential secretariat, began dismantling some of the tents, and attacked the protesters.

Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible around the perimeter of the building, which was taken over by protesters earlier this month, as well as the official residences of the president and prime minister.
The residential buildings were later returned to the authorities.
Protest organizer Chamira Dedduwaj told Reuters they planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to the authorities on Friday afternoon. The police said they had no information about it.

Concern was expressed by American and British diplomats. “We call on the authorities for restraint and immediate access to medical care for those affected,” U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chang tweeted.

“The excessive force and brutality used to push protesters out is a marked departure from what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially when protesters have already said they will leave the premises,” said Bhawani Fonseka, senior fellow at the think tank in Colombo. Center for Political Alternatives.
The Sri Lankan Bar Association said the crackdown could destabilize the country, which is in need of foreign aid and financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

“Using the military to quell civilian protests on the first day of a new president’s tenure is despicable and will have serious consequences for the social, economic and political stability of our country,” the legal team said in a statement.