A huge military contingent, along with police, raided Galle Face in Colombo early on Friday, where anti-government protesters have peacefully agitated for over three months in the wake of the island nation’s grave economic crisis. Several protesters were assaulted by soldiers, eyewitnesses said.
The military attack on the main agitation site comes less than 24 hours after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as President, amid political tumult in the island after dramatic citizens’ protests on July 9 led to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing Sri Lanka.
As Acting President Mr. Wickremesinghe declared an Emergency on Monday, two days ahead of a crucial parliament vote in which he was elected President.
The military’s aggressive takeover of the protest site in the early hours on Friday shocked many, as activists had announced they would vacate the area by Friday afternoon. At least eight persons, including lawyers and activists, were arrested.
Media denied entry
According to eyewitness accounts, at around 2.00 a.m. soldiers stormed the area, and aggressively dismantled protesters’ tents put up at the agitation site, including those of the deaf community and soldiers with disability. They attacked many protesters, especially those trying to film the developments, multiple sources at the spot said.
Soon after, armed soldiers and police blocked entry into the Galle Face area, Colombo’s iconic front that has been the main anti-government agitation site since April, from all access points. “No one can go. Not even the media or lawyers,” air force personnel stationed on Galle Road, leading to the seafront, told The Hindu at around 3.00 a.m.
Attempts to reach the spot through other access roads proved unsuccessful as either the police or military blocked entry. Asked why the media was not allowed, a uniformed policeman said: “No one can go. That’s all.” Calls made to the army and police spokespersons on Friday morning were not answered.
Meanwhile, protesters who had been at the site overnight said soldiers broke apart one tent after the other, around the Presidential Secretariat, where citizens, mostly youth, have held non-stop, peaceful agitations that have drawn global attention. With the military denying access to media and lawyers, those residing at the spot were the only eyewitnesses to Friday’s developments.
In a public message on Facebook, Saliya Pieris, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, said: “Several lawyers have informed me of an attack on protestors at the Galle Face near the Presidential Secretariat. Whilst the details are sketchy, I am also told that several people including Nuwan Bopage AAL [Attorney-at-Law] have been arrested. I have also been told of people having been assaulted. The authorities must ensure the safety of everyone and their whereabouts must be made known. I have tried to contact the IGP and also messaged the Army Commander. Unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image.”