Colombo—Sri Lankan security forces demolished the main anti-government protest camp in the capital, evicting activists in a nighttime assault that raised international concern.
Troops and police Special Task Force commandos wielding batons and armed with automatic assault rifles swooped in on protesters blocking the Presidential Secretariat.
Hundreds of soldiers removed the demonstrators’ barricades outside the sea-front building, while the last remaining protesters on the premises—some still on the steps—were evicted.
The operation came hours before the country’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, swore in a new prime minister to try to manage the financial crisis that has crippled the economy and triggered months of protests.
Wickremesinghe himself was elected by legislators on Wednesday to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore and resigned after demonstrators chased him from his palace.
The remaining protesters — far fewer than the thousands who overran several government buildings earlier this month — have been demanding Wickremesinghe also quit, accusing him of protecting the Rajapaksa clan who have dominated politics for much of the last two decades.
By morning, police commandos and soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles ringed the complex, and the main roads leading to the area remained cordoned off.
Hundreds of activists demonstrated at a nearby designated protest site against the authorities’ actions, demanding Wickremesinghe resign and dissolve parliament to allow for fresh elections.
“Don’t attack peaceful protesters, instead listen to us,” said student Dimmithu, 26.
The activists insisted they would continue their struggle, and Basantha Samarasinghe, 45, a businessman and trade union leader, said: “The peoples’ wish is system change, and parliament should be dissolved. It has no public mandate.”
In a statement, police said: “Police and security forces acted to clear protesters occupying the Presidential Secretariat, the main gate and the surroundings.
“Nine people were arrested. Two of them were injured.”
The US ambassador in Colombo, Julie Chung, said she was “deeply concerned” about the military action.
“We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” she said on Twitter.
Canadian High Commissioner (ambassador) David McKinnon said: “It is crucial the authorities act with restraint and avoid violence.”
Amnesty International urged Sri Lankan authorities to respect dissent and condemned the use of force against journalists, including a BBC photographer, covering the military action.
The overnight raid came after Wickremesinghe’s swearing-in and it was condemned by the head of the influential Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Saliya Peiris, who warned it would hurt the new government’s international image.
“Unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image,” Peiris said in a brief statement, adding a lawyer was among those arrested.
New prime minister
Wickremesinghe has pledged to set up a unity government to steer the country out of its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.
A foreign exchange crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and exacerbated by mismanagement has left Sri Lanka suffering lengthy power blackouts and record-high inflation.
The country’s 22 million people have also endured months of food, fuel, and medicine shortages.
On Friday, the new head of state swore in his political rival Dinesh Gunawardena as the country’s new prime minister.
The two men have been schoolmates and friends since the age of three but lead political parties that are diametrically opposed ideologically.
Wickremesinghe is a free-market champion and a pro-West politician while Gunawardena is a staunch Sinhala nationalist who believes in socialism and wants greater state control over the economy.
The cabinet is scheduled to be sworn in later Friday and is expected to include opposition legislators.
After Rajapaksa stepped down, six-time prime minister Wickremesinghe took over the leadership temporarily, until he was confirmed as the new president on Wednesday.
Wickremesinghe had warned protesters that occupying state buildings were illegal and that they would be evicted unless they left on their own.
The day Rajapaksa was forced to flee, protesters also set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private home in the capital.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy, it is against the law,” he said.
The new president has also declared a state of emergency that gives sweeping powers to armed forces and allows police to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without being charged.
Protesters have accused Wickremesinghe of being a proxy of the former president’s powerful family — a charge he has denied.
“I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas,” he told reporters at the Gangaramaya temple. “I am a friend of the people.”