Sri Lanka’s new president is being urged to immediately end all unlawful use of force against protesters who have been demonstrating against the government over the country’s economic meltdown.
A day after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as his country’s leader on Thursday, hundreds of armed troops raided a protest camp outside the president’s office in the early hours of Friday, attacking demonstrators with batons.
Human Rights Watch said the move “sends a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law”.
Two journalists and two lawyers were also attacked by soldiers in the crackdown.
Security forces arrested 11 people, including protesters and lawyers.
“Urgently needed measures to address the economic needs of Sri Lankans demand a government that respects fundamental rights,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement released early on Saturday.
“Sri Lanka’s international partners should send the message loud and clear that they can’t support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people.”
A nation laid low
Wickremesinghe, who previously served six times as prime minister, was sworn in as president a week after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country after protesters stormed his residence.
Rajapaksa subsequently resigned while exiled in Singapore.
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months to demand their top leaders step down to take responsibility for economic chaos that has left the nation’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food.
While the protesters have focused on the Rajapaksa political dynasty, Wickremesinghe has also drawn their ire as a perceived Rajapaksa surrogate.
Armed troops and police arrived in trucks and buses on Friday to clear the main protest camp near the presidential palace in the capital, Colombo, where demonstrators had gathered for more than 100 days.
They removed tents and blocked roads leading to the site.
The troops moved in even though protesters had announced they would voluntarily vacate the site on Friday.
No backing down
Despite heavy security now positioned outside the president’s office, protesters have vowed to continue their efforts until Wickremesinghe resigns.
Wickremesinghe was voted president by MPs this week. He is 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 another Rajapaksa ally, Dinesh Gunawardena, who is 73 and from a prominent political family.
On Monday, when he was acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency giving him the power to change or suspend laws and handing 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 hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family has denied the corruption allegations, but the former president acknowledged some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s crisis.