COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s government is cracking down on organizers and participants of a protest movement that toppled the island’s president last month, arresting several protest leaders, beating others with travel bans and clearing the last remaining protest tents.
The months-long move forced the former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family dominated the country politically for nearly two decades. He fled Sri Lanka last month and resigned.
Protesters had blamed Mr Rajapaksa for the country’s economic collapse after the country ran out of foreign reserves, leading to shortages of fuel and medicines. As a result, many Sri Lankans live in appalling conditions, with people queuing for days at gas stations.
Rajapaksa’s successor as president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, immediately declared a state of emergency and made it clear that he was going after the organizers of the protests. He called some protesters a “fascist” threat and said authorities would take action against those who had occupied government buildings, including the president’s residence and office.
“It seems to be a witch hunt,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, an activist and former human rights commissioner in Sri Lanka. “They hunt people for small groups to quell dissidents, while people responsible for war crimes, for massive corruption, for bringing the country to its knees, can go about as normal.”
Understand what is happening in Sri Lanka
A president deposed. Sri Lanka plunged into a deep crisis when protesters, pushing for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, stormed his home and forced him to flee the country. Here’s what you need to know:
Among the latest arrests on Wednesday were Joseph Stalin, a leader of a teachers’ union, and Mahanama Thero, a Buddhist monk, who were both at the forefront of the movement. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and another Protestant, is in hiding after police raided a church with an arrest warrant.
“The right to protest is a democratic right,” Mr Stalin said in a video posted on social media as he is taken away by police. “What crime have I committed? Have I stolen public money or killed people?”
Among those arrested so far include a protester accused of stealing the president’s official flag, another accused of stealing the president’s beer mug, and a third sitting in the president’s chair. the president has sat.
Although the movement had remained largely disciplined over months of demonstrations, the climax of the day, July 9, became chaotic in the streets, forcing government leaders to hide.
Protesters occupied the president’s office and his official residence, though they quickly tried to restore order there. A mob set fire to the private home of Mr Wickremesinghe, then Prime Minister, while other protesters clashed with security forces outside parliament.
The organizers of the movement, who camped for months along the Galle Face ocean park in Colombo, had distanced themselves from violence and vandalism.
Mr Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician who had been prime minister half a dozen times, owes his rise to the top job thanks to the support of Mr Rajapaksa’s party. His actions since taking office have essentially partially delivered any victory for the protesters, with several members of the Rajapaksa dynasty back in parliament and rumors of the former president’s return, who remains in Singapore.
Shortly after taking office as president, Mr. Wickremesinghe police on July 22 for a violent raid on the protest site, clearing the tents around the president’s office and injuring about 50 protesters.
Activists said the timing of the raid – just hours before the protesters’ publicly announced 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 has acknowledged that it will be months before Sri Lankans see a substantial change in their grim economic realities, as the country continues to advocate for help from allies and negotiate a bailout plan with the IMF.
On Wednesday, police officers arrived at the protest site and, using megaphones, read an order to vacate the remaining protest tents before Friday.
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi, India.