Sri Lankan security forces raid protest camp as new leaders sworn in

Sri Lankan security forces raided a protest camp occupying government grounds in Colombo early on Friday and cleared out a section of it, fuelling fears that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had launched a crackdown a day after being sworn in.

Media footage showed soldiers in riot gear and armed with assault rifles tearing down the camp, set up in April by protesters enraged with the country’s economic collapse, which has caused severe shortages of fuel, food and medicines.

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

Protesters had feared a crackdown was imminent as Wickremesinghe imposed a state of emergency in the country from Monday when he was the acting head of state, and many among them regarded him as an ally of Rajapaksa.

Another Rajapaksa ally, senior lawmaker Dinesh Gunawardena, took the oath as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister just hours after security forces moved against the protest camp. The rest of the cabinet is expected to be sworn in later on Friday, with Wickremesinghe expected to keep the finance portfolio.

Anti-government protesters speak with the members of Sri Lankan security forces on Friday. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Gunawardena took the oath of office in the presence of Wickremesinghe, seated in front of uniformed military officers in a room packed with lawmakers and officials.

Arrests after pre-dawn raids

“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,” police spokesperson Nalin Thalduwa told Reuters.

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

Angry at the pre-dawn raids, hundreds of protesters marched from the city’s main railway station toward the Galle Face protest site, where they were held back by military and riot police manning barricades.

“The very first day he used the armed forces — this is the face of Ranil Wickremesinghe,” said Rajeevkanth Rajkumar, CEO of a construction company and one of the protesters. “We don’t want any more innocent people to be injured. But we will go to that place (the protest site) at any cost.”

Opposition politician Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who lost the vote for the presidency, said on Twitter: “Let’s bring down the brutal … regime that viciously attacked the protesters at Galle Face.”

Members of Sri Lankan security forces remove temporary structures set up in Colombo by activists. Hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers and police raided the main anti-government protest camp early Friday. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Protest organizers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the “Gota Go Gama” protest camp, mockingly named after Rajapaksa, after midnight and then took apart a section of it.

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

“They beat us really cruelly,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but did not appear injured himself. “Mr. Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”

Previous emergency regulations in the island nation of 22 million have been used to give powers to the military to detain and arrest protesters, and curtail the right to protest.

After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel moved in front of the presidential secretariat, started dismantling some tents and assaulted protesters, protest organizer Manjula Samarasekara said.

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.

Protest organizer Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters they had planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police said they had no information on that.

Foreign diplomats urge restraint

U.S. and British diplomats expressed concern over developments.

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

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the crackdown could destabilize the country, which is 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.

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