Dinesh Gunawardena appointed new Sri Lankan PM as police raids protesters

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Dinesh Gunawardena has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Sri Lanka amid the ongoing economic and political crisis in the island nation.

The 73-year-old veteran politician and a longtime ally of the Rajapaksa family took oath on Friday in presence of newly appointed president Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr Gunawardena is the leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and has served as an MP, cabinet minister, and leader of the house in parliament.

He was appointed as the home minister in April by former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The prime minister’s post fell vacant after Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, was sworn in as the nation’s eighth president on Thursday after winning a parliamentary vote earlier this week.

However, the ceremony comes just hours after security forces cleared the Galle Face protest camp near the presidential palace in the capital Colombo and arrested demonstrators.

Thousands of Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding the resignation of the head of the government due to the worst economic crisis that has left the nation’s 22 million people short of fuel and food.

The street protests have forced former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down from his office and flee to Singapore after demonstrators stormed his official residence earlier this month.

In a pre-dawn crackdown on Friday, security forces arrived in trucks and buses and removed tents and banners and blocked roads that lead to the protest site. At least two journalists and two lawyers were reportedly beaten by security forces.

At least 50 protesters were injured, while two were hospitalised, the protest organisers said.

A joint operation involving the military, police and police special forces was launched to “recover the presidential secretariat from the protesters as they have no legal right to hold it”, police spokesperson Nalin Thalduwa said. “Nine people, including two injured, have been arrested.”

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), the primary lawyers’ body in the country, condemned the assault and called for a halt to the “unjustified and disproportionate actions” of armed forces against civilians. The BASL said two lawyers were assaulted when they arrived to offer their counsel.

“The use of armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new president is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country's social, economic and political stability, the BASL said in a statement.

Sri Lankan soldiers block and guard the access road of the president’s secretariat (EPA)
Sri Lankan soldiers block and guard the access road of the president’s secretariat (EPA)

“They beat us really cruelly,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid, told Reuters. “Mr Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”

Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency declared by the then-acting president Mr Wickremesinghe, who later gave broad authority to the armed forces to “restore law and order” nationwide.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa called the midnight clampdown a “cowardly assault against peaceful protestors who had agreed to vacate the sites”. “A useless display of ego and brute force putting innocent lives at risk and endangers Sri Lanka’s international image, at a critical juncture,” he said in a tweet.

The forced clampdown was criticised by the British and the US high commissions.

“Very concerned about reports from the Galle Face protest site. We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest,” said Sarah Hulton, the British high commissioner to Sri Lanka.

US ambassador Julie Chung urged restraint by authorities and "immediate access to medical attention for those injured".

Meanwhile, Mr Wickremesinghe has been leading the talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seeking a$3bn bailout for the bankrupt country. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF managing director told Nikkei Asia that the organisation hopes to complete the rescue talks “as quickly as possible”.

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