A large military contingent, along with police, raided Galle Face in Colombo early on Friday, where protesters have peacefully agitated for over three months, resisting the ruling establishment in the wake of a crushing economic crisis. Nine persons, including protesters, journalists and lawyers, were brutally assaulted by soldiers.
The military attack on the main agitation site comes less than 24 hours after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as President, amid political tumult following former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent ousting by dramatic mass protests. 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 leave the area by Friday afternoon, following a court order. Nine persons who were arrested while resisting military aggression were later released on bail.
Media denied entry
According to eyewitness accounts, around 1.30 a.m. soldiers stormed the area, and forcefully dismantled protesters’ tents put up at the agitation site, including those of the deaf community, soldiers with disability and student groups. They attacked several 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 around 3 a.m. Attempts to reach the area 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 were not answered.
Meanwhile, protesters who had been at the site overnight said soldiers were breaking 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, with the shaky videos taken by terrified demonstrators serving as the main record of what transpired. A few visiting media crews, staying at hotels close to the agitation site, were able to film some of the developments.
“There was no announcement warning us or asking us to vacate. Troops just broke through the row of tents closer to the Presidential Secretariat. Other tents were spared,” said Mareen Nilashini, from Families of Disappeared, a movement campaigning for justice for relatives of forcibly disappeared youth. Like dozens of others, she has been staying in a tent for nearly three months at ‘Gota go gama’ [Gota go village] the agitation site that sprung up amid mounting resistance to the deposed President.
Just after 6 a.m., when media was allowed closer to the spot, the residents of the tent city were in shock and disbelief. “Why would they use such aggression after we promised to leave?” a protester asked, tearing up.
The military’s pre-dawn assault on peaceful protesters, causing serious injury to some, prompted strong condemnation from Sri Lanka’s political opposition and civil society, and international community, besides setting off several pocket protests by angry citizens later on Friday.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa called it a “cowardly assault” on peaceful protesters, “who had agreed to vacate” the site. “A useless display of ego and brute force putting innocent lives at risk & endangers Sri Lanka’s international image, at a critical juncture,” he said in a tweet.
“The use of the armed forces to supress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new President is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability,” the Bar Association of Sri Lanka said in a statement.
In a joint statement, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the USA and UK, who make up a core group on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council said they were “dismayed” at the Galle Face violence. “We call for full respect for human rights and the law,” the countries said.
The UN Human Rights Office said it was “alarmed by the unnecessary use of force” reportedly employed by Sri Lanka’s security forces to break up a protest camp near presidential offices. “We have concerns that the raid on the camp sends a chilling message to peaceful protesters, including elsewhere in the country,” a spokesman said in a statement.