October 7, 2022

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s government is cracking down on organizers and participants of a protest movement that ousted the island nation’s president last month, arresting several protest leaders, slapping others with travel bans and ordering the cleanup of the last remaining protest sites .

The months-long movement forced out former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family had politically dominated the country for the better part of two decades. He left Sri Lanka last month and resigned.

Protesters had blamed Mr. Rajapaksa for the country’s economic collapse after the nation’s foreign exchange reserves ran out, leading to shortages of fuel and medicine. As a result, many Sri Lankans live in squalid conditions, with people queuing outside gas stations for days.

Mr Rajapaksa’s successor as president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, immediately declared a state of emergency and made it clear he was going after the protest organizers. He called some protesters a “fascist” threat and said authorities would take action against those who had occupied government buildings, including the president’s residence and office.

“It seems to be a witch hunt,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, an activist and former human rights commissioner in Sri Lanka. “They hunt down people for small fractions to crush dissent, while people who are responsible for war crimes, for massive corruption, for bringing the country to its knees can just carry on with business as usual.”

Among the latest arrests on Wednesday were Joseph Stalin, a teacher’s union leader, and Mahanama Thero, a Buddhist monk, who were both at the forefront of the movement. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and another protester, is in hiding after police raided a church with a warrant for his arrest.

“The right to protest is a democratic right,” Mr Stalin said in a video on social media as he was taken away by police. “What crime have I committed? Have I stolen public money or murdered people?’

Those arrested so far also include a protester accused of stealing the president’s official flag, another accused of stealing the president’s beer mug and a third who is said to have sat in the president’s chair.

While the movement had remained largely disciplined during months of protests, the climactic day, July 9, turned chaotic in the streets and forced government leaders into hiding.

Protesters occupied the president’s office and official residence, although they quickly tried to restore order there. A mob burned down the private residence of Mr Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time, while other protesters clashed with security forces outside Parliament.

The movement’s organizers, who had camped along Colombo’s Galle Face waterfront park for months, had distanced themselves from acts of violence and vandalism.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician who had served as prime minister half a dozen times, owes his rise to the top job to support from Mr. Rajapaksa’s party. His actions since becoming president have effectively rendered any victory partial for the protesters, with several members of the Rajapaksa dynasty returning to Parliament and fueling rumors of a return for the former president, who remains in Singapore.

Soon after taking office as president, Mr. Wickremesinghe sent police in a violent pre-dawn raid on the protest site on July 22, clearing the tents around the president’s office and injuring about 50 protesters.

Activists said the timing of the raid – just hours before protesters had publicly said they would evacuate the area – made it clear Mr Wickremesinge was flexing his muscles and trying to punish them for their dissent.

The president has acknowledged that it will be months before Sri Lankans see a meaningful change in their bleak economic reality, as the country continues to beg for help from allies and negotiate with the IMF for a bailout.

On Wednesday, police arrived at the protest site and, using loudspeakers, read out an order to clear the remaining protest sites by Friday.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi, India.

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