COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan forces violently cleared the main protest camp of demonstrators outraged by the country’s economic meltdown as the newly elected and deeply unpopular president put army troops in the streets of the capital Friday to maintain order.
Security forces were seen beating at least two journalists during the overnight raid, and the bar association said two lawyers were also assaulted – heavy-handed tactics denounced by the opposition, the U.N., and the U.S. The troops moved in even though protesters had announced they would vacate the site on Friday voluntarily.
Unbowed, the protesters vowed to continue their efforts to change their leadership. A crowd rallied for a few hours outside the main rail station, while some people also gathered as close as they could to the former demonstration site outside the presidential office.
Adding to signs that President Ranil Wickremesinghe would not address the concerns of protesters, he chose a prime minister on Friday with close ties to the political establishment that the demonstrators blame for the country’s collapse.
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding their leaders resign over an economic crisis that has left the island nation’s 22 million people short of essentials like medicine, food and fuel. After they stormed the presidential palace and other government buildings earlier this month, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades, fled and resigned.
Wickremesinghe, who had been prime minister, was elevated to president by lawmakers this week – apparently seen as a safe pair of hands to lead Sri Lanka out of the crisis, even though he, too, was a target of the demonstrations. On Friday, he appointed as prime minister a Rajapaksa ally, Dinesh Gunawardena, who is 73 and from a prominent political family.
After his election in a parliamentary vote this week, Wickremesinghe told lawmakers that the people “are not expecting the old politics from us.” But his recent moves signaled an inclination to maintain the status quo.
On Monday, when he was acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency giving him the power to change or suspend laws and giving authorities broad power to search premises and detain people. Overnight, just hours after he was sworn in, he issued a notice under the state of emergency calling on the armed forces to maintain law and order nationwide – clearing the way for the move against the protest camp.
The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful family of siphoning money from government coffers and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but the former president acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s crisis.
Starting at around midnight, army troops and police arrived in trucks and buses to clear the main protest camp near the presidential palace in the capital, Colombo, where demonstrators have gathered for the past 104 days. They removed tents and blocked roads leading to the site.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main lawyers’ body in the country, said the lawyers who were assaulted had gone to the protest site to offer their counsel.
In all, eight people, including some protesters, were injured, some badly, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give the information to the media. Eleven people were arrested, he said. They included both protesters and lawyers, according to the Bar Association.
“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 Bar Association said in a statement.
The leader of the political opposition, Sajith Premadasa, also denounced the raid.
“A cowardly assault against PEACEFUL protestors, who agreed to vacate the sites today; A useless display of ego and brute force putting innocent lives at risk & endangers Sri Lanka’s international image, at a critical juncture,” he wrote on Twitter.
Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the U.N. resident coordinator to Sri Lanka, expressed grave concern over the use of force and U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung also expressed concern.
“Actions that stifle protests and the right to peaceful assembly can worsen economic and political instability in Sri Lanka,” Singer-Hamdy said.
Heavy security was present outside the president’s office at midday.
The political turmoil has threatened to make a rescue from the International Monetary Fund more difficult. Still, earlier this week, Wickremesinghe said bailout talks with the fund were nearing a conclusion and talks on help from other countries had also progressed.
The head of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, told the Japanese financial magazine Nikkei Asia this week that the fund hopes for a deal “as quickly as possible.”
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