Government supporters attacked protesters camped outside the Sri Lankan prime minister’s office, forcing police to impose an indefinite curfew in the capital, Colombo.
Several hundred supporters of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrated at his office on Monday, following reports that said he can resign to ease the pressure on the president, who is his younger brother.
“Whose power? The power of Mahinda!” they yelled as the gates to the complex opened to allow them to enter.
After the meeting, government supporters walked out to where protesters have been demonstrating for several days in front of the office.
Local television channel Sirasa showed them attacking protesters with clubs, demolishing and then burning their shops.
Tense situation at the MynaGoGama protest site in front of Temple Trees. Peaceful protest attacked by a group – Reporter#lka #SriLanka #SLnews #News1st #protestLK #MynaGoGama #templetrees #Policeman pic.twitter.com/PmzgdHs76v
— Newsfirst.lk Sri Lanka (@NewsfirstSL) May 9, 2022
At least 20 people were injured, authorities said. Rajapaksa loyalists armed with sticks and clubs have attacked unarmed protesters who have camped outside the president’s office since April 9.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons at government supporters who broke through police lines to smash tents and other structures set up by anti-government protesters.
Images of government supporters attacking a protester in “GotaGoGama” pic.twitter.com/nAxkbQi1nX
— NewsWire 🇱🇰 (@NewsWireLK) May 9, 2022
The attack on the protesters came a day later. Mahinda Rajapaksa was interrupted during his first public outing since protests erupted across the country. On Sunday, the prime minister visited one of the holiest Buddhist temples, which houses a tree said to be 2,300 years old, in Anuradhapura.
Dozens of people carried handwritten banners and chanted slogans demanding that “thieves” be banned from entering the holy city, 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Colombo.
‘Week of Protests’
In the meantime, unions A “Week of Protests” began on Monday demanding a change of government and the resignation of its president, union activist Saman Rathnapriya said. adding that more than 1,000 unions representing health, ports, education and other key service sectors have joined the movement.
During the week, he said, workers will hold demonstrations at their workplaces across the country. At the end of the week, they will hold a big march to parliament, demanding the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a new government.
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its foreign loans. Its economic problems have sparked a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests and a vote of no confidence in parliament.
For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which comes from abroad.
Foreign exchange shortages have also hampered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which rose to 18.7 percent in March.
On Sunday, the local Hiru TV channel showed people in some areas fighting as people blocked main roads demanding gasoline and fuel.
Sri Lanka was due to pay $7 billion of its external debt this year out of the nearly $25 billion it is due by 2026. Its total external debt is $51 billion.
Its finance minister announced last week that the country’s usable foreign exchange reserves have plummeted below $50 million.
As oil prices soar during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sri Lanka’s fuel reserves are running low. Authorities have announced that power outages across the country will increase to about four a day because they cannot supply enough fuel to power generating stations.
Protesters demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation have been occupying the entrance to the president’s office for more than a month, demanding that the president, his older brother Mahinda and other powerful members of the Rajapaksa family resign.
Similary the protests have spread elsewhere, with people setting up camps in front of the prime minister’s residence and in other cities across the country.
So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, although three of the five Rajapaksas who were lawmakers resigned from their cabinet posts in April.
Protesters have packed the streets since March, arguing that Rajapaksa and his family, who have dominated almost every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years, are responsible for the crisis.
On Friday, Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency, which empowers it to authorize arrests, seizures and searches of any premises. It can also change or suspend laws in the interest of public safety and for the maintenance of essential supplies.
Diplomats and rights groups have raised concerns about the move.
Sri Lanka has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund for an immediate financing mechanism as well as a long-term rescue plan, but was told its progress would depend on debt restructuring negotiations with creditors.
Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get under way.