Forces attack anti-government protest camp

Security forces in Sri Lanka raided the capital’s main anti-government protest camp on Friday morning, arresting protesters and tearing down tents.

Hundreds of soldiers and police commandos moved towards protesters outside the Colombo presidential offices, hours before they left the area.

A BBC video journalist was beaten by the military and a soldier snatched his phone and deleted videos.

Nine people, including two injured, were arrested by the police.

It comes as Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as president, after former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country last week.

Mr Wickremesinghe – the former Prime Minister – is seen as deeply unpopular with the public and has vowed to take tough action against protesters.

Sri Lanka has endured months of massive turmoil due to an economic crisis, and many blame the former government for mismanaging the country’s finances.

Security forces sealed off a section of the road

The protests remained peaceful after Mr Wickremesinghe was sworn in on Wednesday. Despite deep suspicion, many protesters said they would give him a chance to pull the country out of its economic crisis.

In remarks after his inauguration, he said any attempt to overthrow the government or occupy government buildings was “not democracy, it’s against the law”.

On Friday morning, security forces entered the protest camp and retook the building from protesters, who had previously pledged to return the building.

Police described the incident as a “special operation [back] control of the presidential secretariat”.

Asked about the attack on the BBC journalist, a police spokesman said he was unaware of the incident.

The raid took place in the early hours of Friday, around 01:00 local time (19:30 GMT Thursday). Security forces later completely cordoned off a section of the road leading to the site.

BBC journalists attacked

By Anbarasan Ethirajan, BBC News, Colombo

When we heard that troops might be raiding the anti-government protest site in Colombo after midnight, we went to the spot right in front of the Sri Lankan President’s office.

Soon, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police commandos in riot gear descended from two directions with their faces covered.

When activists raised objections to their presence, security personnel marched and became aggressive. The demonstrators were pushed back.

Within seconds we saw soldiers screaming, tearing down and destroying makeshift tents and other objects on the sidewalk. Troops also moved into the president’s office which was stormed by a huge crowd last week.

Activists had earlier announced they would hand over the building on Friday afternoon. As we followed the soldiers, we could see that they were clearing everything in their path.

Demonstrators were pushed to the designated protest site less than 100 meters away and steel barricades were erected to arrest the activists.

As we were returning from the area, a man in civilian clothes, surrounded by soldiers, shouted at my colleague and said he wanted to delete the videos from his phone. Within seconds, the man punched my colleague and snatched his phone.

Although I explained to them that we were journalists and that we were simply doing our job, they did not listen. My colleague was attacked further and we raised strong objections. Another BBC colleague’s microphone was taken and thrown away.

The phone was returned after the videos were deleted from the device. Another army officer intervened and let us go.

My colleague was shaken but was able to get back to the hotel a few hundred meters away.

The BBC tried to get a response from the army and police on the attack, but no one answered our calls. The state of emergency declared last week is still in effect.

The government’s violence against protesters has already been criticized by civil and legal groups.

“The unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image,” the country’s bar association leader, Saliya Peiris, said in a statement.

Members of the Sri Lankan security forces patrol outside the presidential secretariat on July 22, 2022.

On Friday, members of the Sri Lankan security in front of the presidential secretariat

The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton, also expressed concern over the reports from the protest site.

“We made it clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest,” she tweeted.

Sri Lanka has been plagued by protests for months because the country is effectively bankrupt and faces severe shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies.

The country is currently in a state of emergency, which gives the police and military the power to arrest and detain people without warrants.

It also allows the detention of people without proof or presumption of innocence, and severely restricts fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and expression.

Sri Lanka: the basics

  • Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It gained independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamils ​​and Muslims – make up 99% of the country’s 22 million people.

  • A family of brothers ruled for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the Sinhalese majority in 2009 when his government defeated separatist Tamil rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was secretary of defense at the time and later became president, fled the country after mass unrest.

  • Presidential powers: The president is the head of state, government and military in Sri Lanka, but shares many executive responsibilities with the prime minister, who leads the ruling party in parliament.

  • Now an economic crisis has led to fury in the streets: Soaring inflation has led to a shortage of food, medicine and fuel, there are power outages and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger, with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the situation.