COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s main opposition party called on Saturday for a Parliament session to address attacks against peaceful protesters by security forces a day earlier, as the new government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe faces widespread condemnation over the use of violence.
Protesters have consistently rejected Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister who was sworn in on Thursday after winning a vote in Parliament. Protests have continued despite announcements of a state of emergency and the deployment of troops to secure order.
Hundreds of armed officers violently dispersed peaceful protesters at the main anti-government camp outside the president’s office in Colombo on Friday, just hours before new premier Dinesh Gunawardena and an 18-member Cabinet were sworn in.
More than 50 people were injured during the raids, including journalists and lawyers, according to reports, with at least nine people having been arrested and later released on bail.
The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya, has requested Gunawardena to summon Parliament on Monday to discuss the attacks, which it described as “a blow to democracy.”
SJB lawmaker and chief opposition whip Lakshman Kiriella said in a statement on Saturday: “The unwarranted attack was vehemently condemned by the international community and it can further damage the country’s image.
“The economic crisis faced by Sri Lanka at the moment will exacerbate owing to yesterday’s incident.”
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months to demand their top leaders step down and take responsibility for the country’s economic meltdown, as the island nation of 22 million people struggles with shortages of essentials, including fuel, medicine and food.
The demonstrations led to former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, after he fled to the Maldives and then Singapore last week to escape the popular uprising over the role his family played in the crisis. Wickremesinghe, as a perceived Rajapaksa surrogate, has also drawn protesters’ ire.
Various rights groups and foreign diplomats have expressed concerns over the use of force against protesters, who have held their campaigns since March and announced that they would voluntarily vacate the site on Friday.
US Ambassador Julie Chung said that she had expressed concerns over “the unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protesters” during a meeting with the new president on Friday evening.
“This is not the time to crack down on citizens, but instead to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability and rebuild the economy,” Chung said in a tweet.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that Friday’s attacks “send a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people 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 halt to the use of force by troops.
“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,” BASL president Saliya Pieris said in a statement.
Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s deputy secretary general, said that 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.”