Sri Lanka’s new govt under fresh pressure after assault on peaceful protesters

Colombo: Sri Lanka’s new government, much-dependent on aid to tide over its worst economic crisis, came under fresh pressure from the international community, human rights groups and the Opposition on Saturday as they urged President Ranil Wickremesinghe to immediately order security forces to stop use of force against peaceful protesters.

Sri Lanka’s security forces forcibly evicted anti-government protesters camped outside the presidential office in Colombo in a pre-dawn raid on Friday on the order of the crisis-hit island nation’s new President Wickremesinghe.

Protesters have been camping outside the presidential office for months, demanding the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country on July 13, and Wickremesinghe, a key Rajapaksa ally. Protesters have blamed Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe for mismanaging the economy that has left the country’s 22 million people struggling to buy fuel, food and basic necessities.

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The Opposition has urged newly-appointed Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to summon Parliament on Monday to discuss attacks on peaceful protests by the country’s security forces and the current situation in the country.

Two journalists and two lawyers were also attacked by the security forces during crackdown on Friday. Authorities have also arrested 11 people, including protesters and lawyers.

Leader of the Opposition of Sri Lanka, Sajith Premadasa has already expressed concern over the attack on protesters.

“There is no denying there was excessive use of force and it was uncalled for. Nothing can justify this inhumane act, the law must be followed by all,” he tweeted on Friday.

On Saturday, he once again tweeted that the government should ensure that Friday’s violence is not repeated.

He also pointed out that the European Union’s warning to the Wickremasinghe government rings alarm bells throughout Sri Lanka as GSP+ is most invaluable for the country’s exports.

Premadasa’s tweet came after the Council of the European Union in a strongly worded statement on Friday said that the 27-member bloc expects the new Government of Sri Lanka to work in full compliance with its GSP+ commitments.

“In the light of reports of unnecessary violence against protestors, the EU stresses the importance of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and condemns the unwarranted use of force against peaceful demonstrators,” it said in a strong statement.

The re-introduction in 2017 of preferential access to the European Single Market under the GSP+ scheme has been essential for Sri Lanka’s economic development, it pointed out.

“The EU expects the new Government to work in full compliance with its GSP+ commitments,” the statement said.

UN Resident Coordinator to Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy has also voiced her concern over the use of force to disperse protestors at Galle Face.

Taking to Twitter, Singer-Hamdy said journalists and human rights defenders have a right to monitor demonstrations and their functions should not be impeded.

She cautioned that actions that stifle protests and the right to peaceful assembly can worsen economic and political instability in Sri Lanka.

Global rights organisation Human Rights Watch said that President Wickremesinghe should immediately order the security forces to cease all unlawful use of force against protesters.

It also demanded the release everyone arbitrarily detained and investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses.

South Asia director at Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly, in a statement said, “Just one day after taking office, President Wickremesinghe oversaw a brutal assault by security forces on peaceful protesters in the heart of Colombo.”

“This action sends a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law,” she said.

She added that Sri Lanka’s international partners should send the message loud and clear that they cannot support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also condemned the raid, calling it a “brutal and despicable attack on peaceful protesters” and a “total violation of the fundamental rights of the people.”

US and British diplomats in Colombo have also expressed concern.

“We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung tweeted.

The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton she was “very concerned” about reports of a clampdown at the protest site. “We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest,” she added.

Sri Lanka needs about USD 5 billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts. The country is currently holding talks with the IMF and other foreign countries on financial aid to tide over the current economic crisis.

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