Sri Lanka targets protest organizers who overthrew president

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan government is cracking down on people who took part in a protest that overthrew the president of the island nation last month, arresting several protest leaders, slapping others with travel bans and ordering the clearing of the last remaining protest tents.

The months-long movement ousted former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family had politically dominated the country for the better part of two decades. I fled Sri Lanka last month and resigned.

Protesters had blamed Mr Rajapaksa for the country’s economic collapse after the nation depleted its foreign exchange reserves, leading to fuel and medicine shortages. As a result, many Sri Lankans live in dire conditions, with people queuing in front of gas stations For days.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s successor as President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, immediately declared a state of emergency and made it clear that he was suing the protest organizers. He called some protesters a “fascist” threat and said authorities would take action against those who occupied government buildings, including the president’s residence and office.

“It seems like a witch hunt,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, an activist and former human rights commissioner in Sri Lanka. “They hunt people for minor fractions in order to crush dissent, while those responsible for war crimes, massive corruption, bringing the country to its knees are able to carry on as if nothing had happened. “

Among the latest arrests on Wednesday were Joseph Stalin, leader of a teachers’ union, and Mahanama Thero, a Buddhist monk, both at the forefront of the movement. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and another element of the protest, is in hiding after police raided a church with a warrant for his arrest.

“The right to protest is a democratic right,” Mr Stalin said in a video on social media as he was led away by police. “What crime have I committed? Did I steal public money or murder people?

Also among those arrested so far are a protester accused of stealing the president’s official flag, another accused of stealing the president’s beer mug and a third who sat in the president’s chair.

While the movement had remained largely disciplined through months of protests, the culminating day of July 9 turned chaotic on the streets and forced government leaders into hiding.

protesters occupied the president’s office and official residence, although they soon tried to restore order there. A crowd burned the private residence of Mr Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time, while other protesters clashed with security forces outside parliament.

The movement’s organizers, who had camped along the Galle Face oceanfront park in Colombo for months, had walked away from the violence and vandalism.

Mr Wickremesinghe, a seasoned politician who had been prime minister half a dozen times, owes his rise to the highest position in support of Mr. Rajapaksa’s Feast. His actions since taking office as president have essentially rendered any victory for protesters partial, with several members of the Rajapaksa dynasty back in Parliament and rumors are rife about the return of the former president, who remained in Singapore.

Shortly after taking office as President, Mr Wickremesinghe sent the police to a violent pre-dawn raid from the protest site on July 22, clearing the tents around the president’s office and injuring around 50 protesters.

Activists said the timing of the raid – just hours before the protesters’ publicly declared time to leave the area – made it clear that Mr Wickremesinge was flexing his muscles and trying to punish them for their dissent.

The president acknowledged that it will be months before Sri Lankans see a substantial change in their grim economic reality, as the country continues to seek help from allies and negotiate with the IMF for a bailout package. .

On Wednesday, police arrived at the protest site and, using megaphones, read out an order to clear the remaining protest tents by Friday.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi, India.