Sri Lanka Targets Organizers of Protests That Toppled President
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Sri Lankan government is cracking down on organizers and participants of a protest movement that toppled the island nation’s president last month, arresting several demonstration leaders, slapping others with travel bans and ordering the clearing of the last remaining protest tents.
The monthslong movement forced out the former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose family had politically dominated the country for the better part of two decades. He fled Sri Lanka last month and resigned.
Protesters had blamed Mr. Rajapaksa for the country’s economic collapse after the nation ran out of foreign reserves, leading to shortages of fuel and medicine. As a result, many Sri Lankans are living in dire conditions, with people lining up 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 the authorities would take action against those who had occupied government buildings, including the president’s residence and office.
“It appears to be a witch hunt,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, an activist and a former human rights commissioner in Sri Lanka. “They are hunting people for minor fractions to crush dissent, while people who are responsible for war crimes, for massive corruption, for bringing the country to its knees are able to just continue business as usual.”
Understand What Is Happening in Sri Lanka
A president ousted. Sri Lanka plunged into a deep crisis when protestors, pushing for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, stormed his residence, pushing him to flee the country. Here is what to know:
Economic issues. Sri Lanka was once held up as an economic success story, with one of the highest median incomes in South Asia. But the country is now essentially out of money, and many people are living on the edge, a result of poor political decisions, reckless spending and economic mismanagement.
Growing discontent. Sri Lanka’s economic troubles amplified in 2022, when the country started running out of foreign currency. With supplies of food, fuel and other supplies dwindling, protesters started taking to the streets demanding that Mr. Rajapaksa and other members of his family, a powerful political dynasty, leave the government.
A new prime minister. As protests intensified, Mr. Rajapaksa began emptying his cabinet of family members. In May, his elder brother was forced out as prime minister and replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who began discussions with the International Monetary Fund on the terms of an economic bailout.
The tipping point. On July 9, increasingly frustrated protesters took over the president’s residence in Colombo, while Mr. Rajapaksa went into hiding. The speaker of Parliament later said that the president and the prime minister had agreed to resign.
An acting president is appointed. On July 13, Mr. Rajapaksa fled the country. With the leadership of the nation uncertain, protesters surrounded the prime minister’s residence in Colombo, where they were met with tear gas. The prime minister, Mr. Wickremesinghe, was named acting president, declaring a state of emergency and vowing to retake government buildings overrun by protesters. On July 20, Mr. Wickremesinghe was elected president by lawmakers in Parliament.
Among the latest arrests on Wednesday were Joseph Stalin, a leader of a teacher’s union, and Mahanama Thero, a Buddhist monk, both of whom were at the forefront of the movement. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and another protest fixture, is in hiding after the 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 is being taken away by the police. “What crime have I committed? Have I stolen public money or murdered people?”
Those arrested thus far also include a protester accused of stealing the president’s official flag, another charged with stealing the president’s beer mug, and third said to have sat in the president’s chair.
While the movement had remained largely disciplined during months of demonstrations, the climactic day, July 9, turned chaotic in the streets and forced government leaders in hiding.
Protesters occupied the president’s office and his official residence, though they quickly tried to restore order there. A mob burned the private residence of Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was prime minister at the time, while other protesters clashed with security forces outside Parliament.
Movement organizers, who had camped along the Galle Face oceanside park in Colombo for months, had distanced themselves from acts of violence and vandalism.
Mr. Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician who had been prime minister half a dozen times, owes his ascent to the top job to support from Mr. Rajapaksa’s party. His actions since taking over as president have essentially made any victory for the protesters partial, with several members of the Rajapaksa dynasty back in the Parliament and rumors rife about the return of the former president, who remains in Singapore.
Soon after taking office as president, Mr. Wickremesinghe sent the police on a violent pre-dawn raid of the protest site on July 22, clearing the tents around the president’s office and leaving about 50 protesters injured.
Activists said the timing of the raid — just hours ahead of the protesters’ publicly declared time for vacating the area — made clear that 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 substantial change in their grim economic reality, as the country continues to plead for help from allies and negotiate with the I.M.F. for a bailout.
On Wednesday, police officers arrived at the protest site and, using megaphones, read out an order to clear the remaining protest tents by Friday.
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi, India.