Sri Lanka cricket stars come out in support of anti-government protests: ‘This is state-backed violence’

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Several Sri Lankan cricketing legends have come together to criticise the Mahinda Rajapaksa government as the toll of political violence rose to eight amid a crippling economic crisis that has plagued the country for months.

Thousands of Sri Lankans have taken to the streets demanding the resignations of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who stepped down as prime minister this week, over a debt crisis that has led to a shortage of fuel, food and other essentials.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy after suspending payment of $7bn of foreign loans it was due to pay this year out of a $25bn due by 2026. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt stands at $51bn.

The protests, which have been largely peaceful, turned violent on Monday after pro-government supporters attacked a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office in capital Colombo. The mob surrounded the protesters, beating them up with steel rods and batons and destroying and setting fire to the premises.

When the police and military arrived, they reportedly allowed the Rajapaksa supporters to continue their attacks. The violence spread across the island nation as police responded with water cannons and teargas.

Irked anti-government protesters attacked ruling party politicians, set fire to houses of ministers and other pro-government parliamentarians, as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s house in his constituency Kurunegala, the Rajapaksa’s ancestral home just outside Colombo, and a boutique hotel owned by one of his sons.

According to the country's defence ministry, eight people, including a lawmaker and two police officers, have been killed, while over 200 people sustained injuries in the carnage. Over 100 buildings and 60 vehicles were burned, it said.

Former Lankan cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara called the violence “despicable” and accused the government of backing it.

“Peaceful protestors demanding for their basic needs and rights attacked by despicable thugs and goons backed by the thugs and goons in the government. Disgusting. This is state-backed violence. Intentional and planned,” he wrote on Twitter.

Former skipper and the current consultant coach of Sri Lanka national cricket team Mahela Jayawardene shared a video of a woman being attacked in “front of police officers” and tore into the ruling government.

In a subsequent tweet, he wrote: “Violence will not achieve the Change we all seeking for and truly amazing discipline everyone showed for the last 30 days. So please let’s not let vested interest take over people power.”

Mr Jayawardene also used the hashtag “GoGotaGo”, which has been the clarion call for the Rajapaksa dynasty to collectively resign.

In another tweet, he said: “History has given us lessons of civil war and distrust among people through race and religion disharmony.. Also how it’s been used as a weapon to fulfil own agendas.. Divided We Fall and United We Stand Strong Always think as Sri Lankan!!”

Wanindu Hasaranga, a member of the national team, wrote on Monday: “Cowardly and Barbaric! Two words that sum up today’s attack on innocent and peaceful Sri Lankan protesters.”

“I am disappointed to even think we have such leadership in our country,” he added.

Veteran cricketer Roshan Mahanama joined the agitation at Galle Face in Colombo this week and urged protesters to show “opposition to the government in a peaceful manner”.

“Staying at home while watching the country go into chaos was not an option. As soon as possible, I walked to Galle Face from home last afternoon to stand in solidarity with the fellow protesters and to show my support towards the fight against the corrupt, power hungry leaders of the country...,” he wrote.

Earlier in April, former cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya had joined the protest in Colombo. “It is unfortunate that the people are going through this situation. They cannot survive like this and have started to protest. There is a shortage of gas and no electricity supply for hours,” he said at the time.

Sri Lankan authorities on Wednesday deployed armoured vehicles and troops on the streets of the capital, a day after the defence ministry ordered the armed forces to shoot at any persons damaging public property or threatening lives.

Kamal Gunaratne, a top defence ministry official, denied allegations of a military takeover. “None of our officers have a desire to take over the government. It has never happened in our country and it is not easy to do it here,” said Mr Gunaratne.

Following Monday’s violence, prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family fled the official residence as thousands of protesters tried to break in. The president, however, remained at his official residence guarded by the military and police.

New Delhi has denied claims that “certain political persons and their families” have fled to India. It has also rejected speculation that India was sending troops into Colombo.

India on Tuesday assured Sri Lanka of its support, saying that New Delhi has extended support of $3.5bn to help it overcome the crisis, besides sending essential items like food and medicine.

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