Colombo: Sri Lanka’s main opposition party called for a parliament session on Saturday to address attacks against peaceful protesters by security forces, as the new government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe faced widespread condemnation over its use of violence.
Protesters have consistently rejected former prime minister Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in on Thursday after winning votes in Parliament. Despite the declaration of a state of emergency and deployment of troops for safe arrangements, the protests continued.
Hundreds of armed officers violently dispersed peaceful protesters at the main anti-government camp outside the presidential office in Colombo on Friday, hours before new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardene and the 18-member cabinet were sworn in.
According to reports, more than 50 people including journalists and lawyers were injured during the raids, in which at least nine people were arrested and later released on bail.
The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balvegaya, urged Gunawardene to convene parliament on Monday to discuss the attacks, which it described as “a blow to democracy”.
SJB legislator and chief opposition whip Laxman Kirila said in a statement on Saturday, “The international community strongly condemns this unwarranted attack and it may further damage the country’s image.
“The economic crisis facing Sri Lanka at this time will be exacerbated by tomorrow’s incident.”
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding their top leaders step down and take responsibility for the country’s economic slowdown, as the island nation of 22 million people grapples with shortages of essentials including fuel, medicine and food.
The demonstrations have led to the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after he fled to the Maldives and then Singapore last week to avoid a popular revolt over his family’s role in the crisis. Wickremesinghe, an alleged Rajapakse surrogate, has also drawn the ire of protesters.
Various rights groups and foreign diplomats have expressed concern over the use of force against the protesters, who have carried out their campaigns since March, and announced they would voluntarily vacate the site on Friday.
US Ambassador Julie Chung said she had expressed concern over the “unnecessary and deeply disturbing escalation of violence against protesters” during her meeting with the new president on Friday evening.
“This is not a time to crack down on citizens, but to look at the immediate and concrete steps the government can take to gain people’s trust, restore stability and rebuild the economy,” Chung said in a tweet. “
Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said Friday’s attacks “send a dangerous message to the people of Sri Lanka that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law.”
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka also condemned the violence and called for an immediate stop to the use of force by the soldiers.
“The use of armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the first day in office of the new president is abhorrent and will have dire consequences on the social, economic and political stability of our country,” BASL President Salia Pieris said in a statement.
Amnesty International Deputy Secretary-General Kyle Ward said the right to protest must be respected.
“It is shameful that the new government resorted to such violent tactics within hours of coming to power.”