As Sri Lanka continues to face one of the worst economic crises the country has faced since its independence, the situation has deteriorated further in the past few weeks. On Monday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from his post, although his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains in power as the president. However, following the Sri Lankan leader’s resignation, protests turned violent as pro and anti-government groups clashed, leaving at least 217 people injured and eight casualties, as of Tuesday.
The island nation has been under curfew, and a state of emergency has been declared since Friday, after an order was given by President Rajapaksa. On Monday, Sri Lanka deployed thousands of troops and police personnel to enforce the curfew amid arson and the rising death toll due to the protests. Anti-government protesters and Sri Lankan religious leaders blamed the escalation of violence on the former PM, saying that he instigated violence using the Rajapaksa family’s supporters to attack unarmed protesters.
Amid the protests, a ruling party MP died during an encounter with some anti-government protesters outside the national capital. The police and some eyewitness accounts indicate that MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala had opened fire, injuring at least two people. Reportedly, as the protesters began to topple his SUV, he hid in a nearby building where he shot himself with his own gun. According to police sources, the lawmaker and his security personnel were later found dead.
Earlier today, the former PM and his family were rescued in a pre-dawn operation by the military, as thousands of anti-government protesters stormed his residence in Colombo overnight. According to sources, the police had to disperse the crowd by using tear gas, and warning shots were fired. Subsequently, the Rajapaksas were evacuated and took shelter in the Trincomalee naval base.
The protesters also attacked the offices and residences of several members of the ruling party – the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – including that of MP Johnston Fernando. On the other hand, the official residences of MPs Sanath Nishantha, Ramesh Pathirana, Nimal Lanza, and Sri Lanka’s Moratuwa Mayor Saman Lal Fernando were set on fire. A few hours after the former PM’s resignation, a group of protesters also set fire to the Rajapaksa ancestral home in Medamulana, Hambantota. Some reports suggest that at least 41 homes of top politicians were torched, despite the curfew.
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The nationwide curfew that was to end today has been extended till Wednesday following the increased cases of violence and arson across the country. The people of the island nation are struggling due to the economic crisis that the country has been grappling with for weeks now, with prices of food and fuel at an all-time high.
Amid this crisis, the president has called upon all the parties to join together as a united government to face the crisis. In response, the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa said, “We are very capable of defending ourselves against state-sponsored violence but we must not forget we are also capable of compassion. The future generations are watching how we choose to express our anger. Non-violence is the only true and acceptable path.”
President Rajapaksa has “strongly condemned” the violence that took place on Monday and Tuesday. Human Rights Watch, an international human rights advocacy group, said that the violence by government supporters has led to a “dangerous escalation” and increased the risk of “further deadly violence and other abuses”. The group’s South Asia director has urged the incumbent Sri Lankan government to “uphold the right to peaceful protest”, and highlighted the importance of security forces respecting the right to peaceful assembly. The US State Department has also released a statement indicating that they are “closely monitoring” the situation in Sri Lanka, and has expressed its concern over the violence against peaceful protesters and innocent spectators.