Sri Lanka on boil: Mahinda takes shelter at naval base

Agencies |
May 11, 2022 03:51 AM IST

With thousands of security forces enforcing a curfew, the defence ministry said troops “have been ordered to shoot on sight anyone looting public property or causing harm to life”.

Sri Lanka’s former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa took refuge at a naval base on the northeast coast of the island nation as the fire of deadly protests spread across the country, with thousands of demonstrators defying a nationwide curfew to express anger over the nation’s worst ever economic crisis.

A burnt bus near former Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo.(AFP)
A burnt bus near former Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo.(AFP)

A day earlier, violent clashes left five dead and prompted the resignation of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is blamed along with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for leading the country into turmoil. A protest began in front of Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Naval Base after reports emerged that the former prime minister and some of his family members were there after leaving the official residence in Colombo.

Trincomalee is a port city on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. Thousands of angry protesters stormed Mahinda’s official residence overnight, and he was rescued in a pre-dawn military operation on Tuesday. His son said that Mahinda will not flee the country.

With thousands of security forces enforcing a curfew, the defence ministry said troops “have been ordered to shoot on sight anyone looting public property or causing harm to life”.

Protesters and a key trade group called for a new government to take control of the crisis-hit country as the president called for calm a day after clashes killed eight people.

With Rajapaksa’s resignation, the cabinet was also dissolved, creating an administrative vacuum.

Even though the President has the most power under the constitution, a prime minister and cabinet are needed to manage the government. The prime minister is also the next in line if the presidency falls vacant.

Protesters angered by shortages of fuel, cooking gas and electricity defied the curfew to attack government figures, setting ablaze homes, shops and businesses belonging to ruling party lawmakers and provincial politicians.

Demonstrators on Tuesday swarmed the entrance to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office in the capital for the 32nd day to demand that he follow in his brother’s footsteps and quit.

The Rajapaksa clan’s hold on power has been shaken by months of blackouts and shortages in Sri Lanka, the worst economic crisis since it became independent in 1948. But Monday’s attacks represented a turning point after weeks of peaceful demonstrations.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds and declared an immediate curfew in Colombo, a measure later widened to include the entire South Asian nation of 22 million people.

Nearly 200 protesters were injured when government supporters were bussed into Colombo on Monday, and attacked protesters with sticks and clubs.

“We were hit, the media were hit, women and children were hit,” one witness told AFP.

The violence saw arson attacks on the homes of several politicians, including the ancestral home of the Rajapaksas in Hambantota.

Video footage showed the Rajapaksas’ house in Medamulana in Hambantota city was burning.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was Sri Lanka’s president from 1994 to 2005, warned against violence, tweeting that “saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule”.

President Rajapaksa is a former military officer who has loyalists within the forces.

Authorities said the curfew will be lifted Wednesday morning, with government and private offices, as well as shops and schools, ordered to remain shut on Tuesday.

The United Nations condemned the escalating violence, with human rights chief Michelle Bachelet calling on the authorities to prevent further unrest. “I am deeply troubled by the escalation of violence in Sri Lanka after supporters of the prime minister attacked peaceful protesters in Colombo yesterday May 9 and the subsequent mob violence against members of the ruling party,” Bachelet said in a statement on Tuesday.

In another sign of rapidly deteriorating security, vigilante groups blocked on Tuesday the main road to Colombo’s airport and stopped all traffic to check for any Rajapaksa loyalists trying to leave the island, witnesses said.

Despite the attack on his residence, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son Namal said that his father would not flee, describing the surge of national anger against his family as a “bad patch”. The 76-year-old said he was resigning to pave the way for a unity government.

But it was unclear if the opposition would join any administration with Gotabaya still president. Under Sri Lanka’s political system, even with a new unity government, the president will have the power to appoint and fire ministers as well as judges, and enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Opposition parties said Tuesday they called off unity talks with the government after the outbreak of violence.

For months, people have been forced to stand in lines to buy essentials because a foreign exchange crisis has caused imports of everything to plunge, spawning dire food shortages and rolling power cuts.

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