COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — An ally of the Rajapaksa political family was appointed Friday as Sri Lanka’s 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 lawmakers and sworn into office earlier this week, appointed his school classmate Dinesh Gunawardena to succeed himself. Gunawardena is 73 and also 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.
Before dawn, security forces made several 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 staff arrived in trucks and buses around midnight, removing tents and blocking roads leading to the site. The overnight raid occurred even though protesters had announced they would vacate the site on Friday voluntarily.
Security forces were seen beating up at least two journalists. At least two lawyers were assaulted when they went to the protest site to offer their counsel, said the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main lawyers’ body in the country. It also said one lawyer and several journalists were arrested.
The lawyers’ association called for a halt to the “unjustified and disproportionate actions” of armed forces targeting civilians. It called on Wickremesinghe to ensure he and his government respected the rule of law and citizens’ rights.
“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 association said in its statement.
The heavy-handed removal of the protesters drew criticism.
The leader of the political opposition, Sajith Premadasa, tweeted, “A cowardly assault against PEACEFUL protesters, 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 also expressed concern.
“We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” she said in a tweet.
On Monday, when he was acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad authority to act in the interest of public security and order. Authorities have broad power to search premises and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can change or suspend any law.
On Friday, he issued a notice under the state of emergency calling out 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.
Wickremesinghe, also 73, has wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs and has been overseeing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund. He said Monday those discussions were near a conclusion and talks on aid from other countries had also progressed. He also said the government has taken steps to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.
Even after restoring order and installing a new government, the outlook for reaching an agreement on a bailout remains unclear. The head of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, told the Japanese financial magazine Nikkei Asia this week that the fund hopes for a deal “as quickly as possible.”
But Wickremesinghe said earlier this month that the task was proving difficult because Sri Lanka is effectively bankrupt.