Sri Lanka Clears Protest Site, Names New Prime Minister
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Rajapaksa political ally was appointed Sri Lanka’s prime minister Friday, hours after army troops and police forcefully cleared the main protest site occupied for months by demonstrators angry at the Rajapaksas over the country’s economic collapse.
Even though protesters said they were leaving the site on Friday, the U.N., U.S., and other organizations denounced the use of heavy-handed force. Lawyers claimed that several protesters had been injured and journalists were also among those arrested.
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. The protests last week forced out the ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has ruled Sri Lanka since the late 20th century.
In May, he named Dinesh Gunawardena as his prime minister to negotiate for rescuing the bankrupt nation. Ranil Wickremesinghe, a member of a powerful political family, was elected President. He appointed Dinesh Gunawardena his successor, a 73-year-old school classmate.
Wickremesinghe, then acting president, declared a state emergency, giving him power to suspend or change laws, and authorities wide-ranging powers to search buildings and detain persons. A notice was issued under the emergency by Wickremesinghe on Friday, asking for law- and order to be maintained nationwide.
The main protest camp in Colombo near the capital’s presidential palace was cleared by troops and police before dawn. This is where the demonstrators have been gathering for the past 104 day. Police and Army personnel arrived on trucks and buses at midnight to remove tents from the camp and block roads to it.
Two journalists were attacked by security forces. At least two lawyers also were assaulted when they went to the protest site to offer their counsel, said the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main lawyers’ body in the country.
Harshani Siriwardana, both a lawyer, and protester, stated that there were some injuries to protesters, and they were all taken into custody.
The Bar Association called for a halt to the “unjustified and disproportionate actions” of armed forces targeting civilians. It called on Wickremesinghe to ensure he and his government respected the rule of law and citizens’ rights.
“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 association said in its statement.
The leader of the political opposition, Sajith Premadasa, tweeted, “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.”
Hanaa Singer Hamdy, U.N. resident coordination to Sri Lanka expressed serious concern at the use of force. Hanaa said journalists and human right defenders shouldn’t be stopped from monitoring demonstrations. “Actions that stifle protests and the right to peaceful assembly can worsen economic and political instability in Sri Lanka,” Singer-Hamdy said.
U.S. American Ambassador Julie Chung shared her concerns. “We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” she said in a tweet.
Heavy security was present outside the president’s office at midday.
Wickremesinghe stated earlier this week that bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are close to a conclusion, and that talks about assistance from other countries have also advanced. Wickremesinghe also stated that the government had taken measures to address fuel shortages and cook gas shortages.
Although the country has reestablished order and installed a new government it is not clear if there will be a consensus on a bailout. 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.”
Wickremesinghe, however, stated that this task would be difficult since Sri Lanka is bankrupt.
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