Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Colombo
Sri Lankan security forces have carried out a violent early morning raid on the main anti-government protest camp in Colombo, beating protesters, destroying tents and arresting nine people.
Friday’s raid saw thousands of police and troops armed with riot gear descend on the protest camp, known as Gota Go Gama, where hundreds of people have been living for over three months. More than 50 people were injured and three people were sent to hospital in the attack, according to St John Ambulance volunteers at the scene.
The crackdown came a day after Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is an unpopular figure, was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president following the toppling of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was forced to flee the country amid huge public anger.
According to those present for the raid, armed military officers in black uniforms began violently clearing tents close to the Presidential Secretariat building, the offices of the president which have been occupied by protesters since an anti-government protest last week.
Nine people were arrested, a police spokesperson said, adding that the protesters had “no legal right to hold the area”.
The protest groups had announced they would be peacefully handing back the building back to the government on Friday afternoon, but instead the government took it back by force.
The action appeared to be a show of might by the newly elected Wickremesinghe, who is seen to occupy a weak political position and is facing heavy public pressure to step down. On the day he was elected president by MPs in a secret parliamentary ballot, Wickremesinghe had issued a warning to the protesters, who he had previously decried as infiltrated by “fascists” and “extremists”.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy, it is against the law,” he said.
The attack is likely to deepen public mistrust in Wickremesinghe’s government which is already seen as having no legitimacy. One of Wickremesinghe’s first actions as president was to declare a state of emergency that gave sweeping powers to armed forces and the police to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without being charged.
Among those hurt in Friday’s pre-dawn raid was Chanu Nimesha, 47, whose body was covered in bruises and welts from where she was hit and kicked by military officers. She described being asleep in her tent when she heard an announcement over loudspeakers and then screams as people began to be beaten by security forces ripping up their tents.
“I was hiding behind another tent but they saw me and they started brutally beating me,” said Nimesha. “The officers were saying ‘take the bitch out’, ‘kick her’ and ‘take her in’. I thought I was going to die.”
Nimesha said she fought back. “I was kicking and biting them to resist and then I ran away before they could arrest me,” she said. “I was just in my nightdress but I managed to run away to some tents they weren’t attacking. But then the officers came here and they beat me again here, they trying to arrest me. They kept saying ‘we need to take the bitch in’ but I was resisting.”
Despite her injuries, Nimesha said she was too worried about going to hospital in case she was reported to police and arrested.
Sahan Weerawaradhana, 26, was also badly beaten by military as he tried to enter the camp on Thursday night. He said officers had seized his friend’s phone and begun deleting video footage she was taking of the scene, and then began assaulting him. His body was covered in bruises and his face and lip were swollen from the attack.
“They grabbed me and started brutally beating me with wooden sticks, kicking me with their boots, and were hitting me with the back of their guns,” said Weerawaradhana.
He said the officers then took him away and kept him in custody for four hours. “They were punishing us, they made us stay in these squat military positions for hours which was torture,” said Weerawaradhana. “I was just thinking shame on them. I gave food to the military officers every day in this camp, we all did that because we don’t want violence.”
Several journalists, including one from the BBC, were beaten by officers. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main lawyers’ body in the country, confirmed that least two lawyers were assaulted when they went to the protest site to offer their counsel, and one lawyer was taken into custody. Its statement on Friday said the used of the armed forces against civilians was “despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability”.
Akila Aluwatte, one of the lawyers who came down to the scene, said the incident had been a “violation of human rights. Protesters had announced they would peacefully vacate the building but instead the authorities have forcefully taken it and brutally beaten people up.”
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, condemned the raid as a “vengeful abuse of emergency powers under the executive presidency to punish those that had criticised the failures of the Rajapaksa administration- perhaps an act of loyalty to the party that backed his appointment”.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, who came to collect accounts from the scene in the aftermath, said it was “a total violation of the fundamental rights of the people by the executive”.
There was also widespread condemnation from the diplomatic community, including the US ambassador, Julie Chung who said she was “deeply concerned about actions taken against protestors at Galle Face in the middle of the night.” She later met with Wickremesinghe to express what she described as her “grave concern over the unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protesters.”
No comment was given from Wickremesinghe’s government on the raid. On Friday morning after it took place Dinesh Gunawardena, who is a longtime ally of the Rajapaksa family and old school friend of Wickremesinghe’s, was sworn in as the new prime minister.
Despite promises to form a unity, cross-party government, it was also announced that the cabinet under president Wickremesinghe would remain almost exactly the same as under President Rajapaksa, dominated by MPs from the Rajapaksa’s ruling party, further fuelling concerns that this new regime would prove no different from the last.
In the remaining tents of Gota Go Gama, the mood was one of fear and rage. Navoda Bennett, 20, a resident of the camp since April, described how, as news spread that they were under attack, protesters had gathered all the vulnerable people living in the camp and formed a protective circle around them.
“We were terrified,” she said. “There were babies, children, pregnant mothers, disabled people, a lot of people who could not fend for themselves. People started running this way screaming, many of them had been badly beaten. There were only about 150 people left here and maybe 2,000 military officers.”
Asiri Perera, another resident of the camp, said the action made it clear “we are now living in a police state.”
“Ranil needed to prove his power,” he said. “He doesn’t have the voters’ support so he wanted to show to all the politicians and the army that he is strong. It’s devastating because we got rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, we thought we were making progress for Sri Lanka, but we have ended up in the same place again.”