COLOMBO The anti-government protesters in Sri Lanka, who camped out near the Presidential Secretariat for four months over the island’s economic crisis, on Wednesday announced vacating the agitation site, while stating that their struggle will continue.
The move comes weeks after armed soldiers assaulted protesters and raided their place that drew wide condemnation. Later, the police ordered dismantiling remaining tents of resident-demonstrators before August 5, but some protesters challenged the move in court. Subsequently, they withdrew their petitions and decided to leave the sea-facing agitation site where a stunning citizens’ mobilisation on July 9 ousted the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who they chiefly blamed for the country’s economic collapse.
While the now-iconic tent city of resistance is being removed, pocket protests by citizens’ groups and trade unions were held across the island on Tuesday, pointing to lingering citizens’ anger. Some citizens express relief as fuel supplies improved recently but many others, especially the poor, are struggling to cope with spiralling living costs that remain an everyday reminder of the country’s enduring crisis. The most recent shock for citizens came from the Ceylon Electricity Board announcing a 264 per cent tariff hike for consuming the least, while sparring the bigger consumers.
Last week, President Wickremesinghe told Parliament that Sri Lanka was in “great danger” and citizens’ hardships will continue till the end of the year. The government is counting on assistance from the International Monetary Fund and possible bridge loans from friendly partners, but there is no official word on either materialising soon.
Concern over repression
Meanwhile, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government faces growing allegations of repression. Hashtag Generation, a movement led by civic minded youth, on Wednesday said at least 51 protesters were arrested since Wickremesinghe assumed charge as President on July 21. A total of 18 demonstrators have been barred from leaving the country, while three abductions were reported, it said, “strongly condemning these repressive acts.”
The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) on Tuesday called upon the government to stop the “witch hunt and attend to the actual priorities of the people”. “This government, which is increasingly beginning to resemble a lumbering and deformed beast – formed of an unholy alliance between a so-called ‘liberal’ leader and a parliamentary majority from a party that plunged Sri Lanka into a historic crisis – has no legitimacy,” the FUTA said in a statement.
The recent arrests of prominent trade unionist Joseph Stalin and several other student activists have drawn criticism not only within Sri Lanka, but also from the international community, including the UN. Earlier this week, UN human rights experts condemned the “extensive, prolonged and repeated use” of the state of Emergency by Sri Lankan authorities to “crackdown on peaceful protesters and prevent them from voicing their grievances amidst an economic collapse in the country.”
“In the wake of an unprecedented economic crisis in which families sometimes have to choose between food and medicine, these repressive measures further close avenues for dialogue and maintain a political climate prone to an escalation of tensions,” the experts said in a joint statement signed by several special rapporteurs and UN experts.
“President Wickremesinghe faces immense challenges, but imposing draconian emergency regulations, politically motivated arrests of protest leaders, and heightened surveillance of activist groups will not solve Sri Lanka’s dire problems,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.