An ally of the Rajapaksa political family has been appointed as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, hours after security forces cleared the main protest site occupied for months by demonstrators angry at the Rajapaksas over the country’s economic collapse.
New President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected by politicians and sworn into office earlier this week, appointed his former school classmate Dinesh Gunawardena to succeed himself. Mr Gunawardena is 73 and belongs to a prominent political family.
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding their leaders resign over an economic crisis that has left the island nation’s 22 million people short of essentials like medicine, food and fuel.
The protests forced out former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week. His family has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades, but public outrage over the economic crisis forced several family members to leave ministry posts earlier in the crisis.
Mr Gunawardena’s appointment came several hours after security forces made a number of arrests and cleared a protest camp near the presidential palace in the capital Colombo, where demonstrators have gathered for the past 104 days.
Army and police personnel arrived in trucks and buses around midnight, removing tents and protest banners. They blocked off roads leading to the site and carried long poles.
The security forces were witnessed beating at least two journalists.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main lawyers’ body in the country, said at least two lawyers were assaulted when they went to the protest site to offer counsel.
Its statement on Friday called for a halt to the “unjustified and disproportionate actions” of armed forces against civilians.
“The use of the armed forces to suppress 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 statement said.
The leader of the political opposition, Sajith Premadasa, tweeted: “A cowardly assault against PEACEFUL protestors, who agreed to vacate the sites today; A useless display of ego and brute force putting innocent lives at risk & endangers Sri Lanka’s international image, at a critical juncture.”
US ambassador Julie Chung said: “We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured.”
On Monday, when he was then the acting president, Mr Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad authority to act in the interest of public security and order.
Authorities have power to search premises and detain people, and Mr Wickremesinghe can change or suspend any law.
On Friday, he issued a notice under the state of emergency calling on the armed forces to maintain law and order nationwide. The emergency must be reviewed by parliament regularly to decide whether to extend it or let it expire.
Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, has wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs and has been overseeing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.
He said on Monday those discussions were near a conclusion and talks on help from other countries had also progressed. He also said the government has taken steps to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.