By Saroj Pathirana.
(22 Jul 2022. Al Jazeera)
Colombo, Sri Lanka – The military in Sri Lanka has taken control of the presidential secretariat in Colombo, after what members of the country’s months-long protest movement described as a “brutal assault”.
Soldiers overnight also destroyed tents at the adjacent GotaGoGama protest site, arrested several protest leaders and cordoned off the area together with about 100 protesters.
The military assault came hours after the protesters on Thursday withdrew from the camp in front of Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence. The demonstrators had already announced their intention to withdraw from the presidential secretariat on July 22.
“By around midnight, we heard that a huge contingent of military was on their way towards GotaGoGama and suddenly we saw them running into the presidential secretariat,” Nipun Charaka Jayasekara, a young protester, told Al Jazeera.
“Soon after, they cordoned off the area and brutally assaulted the peaceful protesters as if we were thugs.”
He sustained minor injuries, he said, while trying to run away from the military crackdown.
As the military attack began, Jayasekara streamed it live but later lost his phone in the chaos.
“Some were very badly assaulted; inhumanely assaulted as if they have no heart. We have nowhere to go now. We are locked in GotaGoGama. I have nothing now; not even my phone. I’m now using an old phone now. I am left with only my clothes,” he said.
It is estimated that about 10 protesters were badly injured after being attacked.
The assault on the protest sites came after Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, took the oath as the country’s new president. His predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had fled the country after weeks of protests triggered by the country’s economic collapse and growing public anger over the Rajapaksas longtime political influence.
The Sri Lanka Bar Association said it had been made aware of the raids and that there had been arrests.
“The authorities must ensure the safety of everyone and their whereabouts must be made known,” the association’s president Saliya Peiris said in a statement. “I have tried to contact the IGP (Inspector General of Police) and also messaged the Army Commander. Unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image.”
Sara Hulton, the British high commissioner to Sri Lanka, said she was “very concerned” about the reports of the raids. “We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Deeply concerned about actions taken against protestors at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge restraint by authorities & immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” Julie Chung, the United States ambassador to Sri Lanka, said.
‘Sea of soldiers’
Protester Anjana Bandarawatta told Al Jazeera told of the chaos as the armed forces swooped.
“There was no warning at all. The military suddenly came in and chased us away assaulting us and shouting with filthy language,” he said. “There may be 200 protesters but the whole area looks like a sea of soldiers.”
Shabeer Mohamed, a young protest leader, said he was assaulted by an air force officer while reporting the raid live through social media.
“He came from behind and assaulted me on the head and threw away my mobile phone while I was live streaming. Several other people were also assaulted when they were doing live broadcasts,” Shabeer Mohamed told Al Jazeera.
“They have sealed off GotaGoGama and no journalist is allowed in.”
Several people aired the assault live on social media but the streams stopped several times, thought to be interrupted by the authorities.
Video footage shared on social media showed how soldiers approached the protest site and turned away from one man when he shouted “media, media, BBC”. They then continued on to inspect the tents erected by the protesters.
Melani Gunathilake, a leader of the protest movement, was stopped by the troops as she was walking towards the GotaGoGama site together with a friend. When she took some photos of the scene, a soldier grabbed her phone and deleted the images, she told Al Jazeera.
When her friend questioned it, the troops picked him up as well.
A young protester, who did not want to give their name, said they were “grabbed” by an air force personnel who put a rifle to their head.
“‘Have look around, these are your last hours, you will only live a little bit more’, he said and forcefully took me away to an adjacent street, beating regularly,” the protester said.
“At a side street, I was ordered to kneel down together with four other protesters. While waiting there, they constantly beat us and abused us with filthy language. I was even assaulted with their military boots. And they took all our phones and ordered to reset all the phones. I have wounds in my lips and face; my whole body aches. Several hours later, about 5am in the morning, a senior guy came and ordered others to stop beating and attend to the injured. He also spoke to us nicely,” the protester added.
“I am not sure whether they were genuine air force personnel, though; They all were in uniforms with face coverings, but nobody had their numbers or official badges on.”
Several protest leaders, including lawyer Nuwan Bopage, activist Lahiru Silva, Anuranga and one disabled soldier, are among those confirmed to have been taken away by the military, according to other movement leaders.
“After the announcement that the protesters were planning to handover the Presidential Secretariat to the govt on 22nd July at 2.00pm, in the early hours of the 22nd morning just after 1.00am large numbers of armed forces cordoned off GotaGoGama from all sides and started attacking the unarmed protesters,” a statement by the protest leaders said.
“The IT Center, The Disabled Soldiers Tent, The Community Kitchen that fed so many hundreds of people every day for free, the SYU Tent, The Hearing Impaired Tent, The Gate Zero Tent – these among others have been destroyed completely,” it added.
Wickremesinghe on Friday appointed Dinesh Gunawardena, a Rajapaksa ally, as the country’s new prime minister. The cabinet is expected to be named later in the day.
After being elected by the parliament, with the help of Rajapaksa backers, he said he would not allow any illegal activity such as occupying government premises or attempting to overthrow the government.
“We publicly announced that we’d leave tomorrow. We decided to give a chance to Ranil Wickremesinghe. They had no reason to do this apart from to show their power. Their intention was to intimidate and oppress the protest movement,” protester Jayasekara told Al Jazeera.