The Sri Lanka Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has been tasked with probing the concerted attack on anti-government protesters, police said on Tuesday, a day after a pro-Rajapaksa mob went on a rampage at agitation sites in capital Colombo and in central Kandy district.
The death toll in the attacks, which the protesters accused the police of “simply watching”, rose to eight on Tuesday. Nearly 220 persons were hospitalised after suffering injuries in the brutal assault, and in the targeted, violent retaliation by incensed citizens. Dozens of houses belonging to Ministers and Members of Parliament, including the Rajapaksas’ ancestral village home, were torched.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), a professional body of lawyers, called for an independent investigation and the immediate arrest of “all persons who instigated, conspired to unleash the violent mob…irrespective of the positions they held in government or of their family connections”. The BASL also sought a travel ban on them.
Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down from his premiership on Monday, shortly after his supporters assaulted peaceful protesters outside the Prime Minister’s official residence and near the Presidential Secretariat. On Tuesday evening, amid heightened anger against the government over the violence unleashed by the ruling party’s supporters, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on Twitter: “I appeal and urge people to remain calm & stop violence & acts of revenge against citizens, irrespective of political affiliations. All efforts will be made to restore political stability through consensus, within constitutional mandate & to resolve economic crisis.”
According to the Sri Lankan Constitution the President must appoint as Prime Minister any lawmaker, he thinks, commands a majority in Parliament. However, the government has no Prime Minister in waiting, who has yet claimed having the confidence of the majority of lawmakers. The main Opposition party, along with its allies and other parties, has less than half the number of seats in the 225-member Parliament. Regardless, Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa has emphatically stated that he will not be part of any interim arrangement under the current President.
Further, it remains to be seen how Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation, after obvious friction with his younger brother and the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, might impact the ruling party in the legislature. The Parliament stands adjourned till May 17. “Restoring political stability”, as Mr. Gotabaya has promised, may hence not be easy — that too when the island endures an agonising economic meltdown that pushed citizens to anti-Rajapaksa street protests months ago.
In fact, the recent turbulence could discourage bilateral partners and creditors from extending the promised support, a tweet from a top World Bank official showed. “We are deeply concerned with the perpetration of violence in #SriLanka. Those responsible are only standing in the way of the country’s immediate economic recovery and making the task even more difficult for development partners,” World Bank Country Director Faris Hadad-Zervos said. Several Colombo-based diplomats have condemned the violence, voicing serious concern.
Meanwhile, many fear that the violence that gripped the island on Monday may further escalate, with several incidents of vandalism and torching reported on Tuesday. In a rare tweet on current political affairs, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga warned of a possible military takeover of the country whose civil administration is known to be heavily militarised. “I appeal to all our citizens who have carried on a Wonderful struggle for Justice and Democratic governance so PEACEFULLY, to be aware that saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule. Please use your organisational skills to halt this danger," she said.
Undeterred by the attacks and ensuing violence, protesters are back at ‘Gota go gama’ or [Gota go village], near Colombo’s seafront, rebuilding their tent city of resistance. “We don’t justify violence from any party. But seeing yesterday’s provocation by government-backed thugs, one can understand why people were so angry. We are back here, to continue our peaceful, creative protests asking the President to go home,” said Aparna Shavindi Kulathunga, a student of law, who is part of a legal camp tent at the agitation site.