Sri Lankan troops disperse protesters; new PM named
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — 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, 73, 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 also 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, as 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 main protest camp near the presidential palace in the capital, Colombo.
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.