Sri Lanka’s president has urged people to reject what he called attempts to foment racial and religious disharmony such as violence broke out in many parts of the country by the government’s handling of a devastating economic crisis.
Violent street protests have killed eight people this week, and even the resignation of the older brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as prime minister and the curfew have failed to calm public anger.
The government has ordered troops to shoot anyone damage public property or threaten lives.
Sri Lankans have blamed the Rajapaksa clan for the economic collapse that has left the country with only about $50 million in reserves, crippling most imports and causing massive shortages of fuel, cooking gas and other essentials.
Protesters set fire to the family’s ancestral home in the south earlier in the week.
“This is the time for all Sri Lankans to come together to overcome economic, social and political challenges,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“I urge all #Srilankans to reject subversive attempts to push them into racial and religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, tolerance and coexistence is vital”.
This is the time for all Sri Lankans to come together to overcome the economic, social and political challenges.
I urge everyone #sri lankans to reject subversive attempts to push you into racial and religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, tolerance and coexistence is vital.
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) May 11, 2022
It was not immediately clear what prompted the president to issue the warning. However, Sri Lanka has a long and bloody history of ethnic tensions.
Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned as prime minister on Monday, they were in key government posts when a 26-year civil war ended in 2009 after security forces defeated fighters from the minority Tamil community.
Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country of 22 million, which also has Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities.
The curfew imposed shortly after the violence broke out on Monday was due to be lifted on Wednesday morning, but was extended for another 24 hours due to continued violence.
Even with a curfew imposed and thousands of security forces ordered to “shoot on sight” to prevent further unrest, a luxury hotel said to belong to a relative of Rajapaksa was torched on Tuesday night.
“It is no longer spontaneous anger, but organized violence,” a senior security official said on condition of anonymity.
“If the situation is not controlled, there could be total anarchy.”
A police spokesman said two shootings were reported Tuesday night, including one in the southern city of Rathgama that injured four people.
In Weeraketiya, a southern city that is home to the Rajapaksas, the police and army patrolled the streets, with shops and businesses closed due to curfew.
“For the protesters themselves, the fact that the prime minister has resigned is not enough,” said Minelle Fernandez, a reporter for Al Jazeera in Colombo. “They want a clean sweep.”
On Monday, local media video footage showed the family’s ancestral home in flames, while multiple attacks on legislators’ homes and election offices were also reported.
Unrest in Sri Lanka has escalated after Monday’s events when government supporters attacked protesters in Colombo with sticks and clubs who have been protesting peacefully for weeks over the economic crisis and demanding the resignation of President Rajapaksa.
Mobs then retaliated across the country late into the night, burning down dozens of homes of ruling party politicians and attempting to storm the prime minister’s official residence in the capital.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and her family had to be rescued in a pre-dawn military operation on Tuesday after thousands of angry protesters stormed her residence hours after she resigned as prime minister.
There was no confirmation of their whereabouts, but some protesters gathered outside a well-fortified naval base in Trincomalee, on the northeast coast, claiming the Rajapaksa family was protected there.
The Indian embassy denied social media speculation that “certain political persons and their families have fled to India” and also rejected speculation that India was sending troops to Sri Lanka.
India on Tuesday extended $3.5 billion in support to Sri Lanka to help it through the crisis, in addition to sending essential items such as food and medicine, the Indian Foreign Ministry said.
Sri Lanka has also opened staff-level talks with the International Monetary Fund about a possible bailout after the country ran out of dollars to import even the most essential items.
Echoing calls from the UN and European Union human rights chief, the United States said on Tuesday it was concerned about the escalation of violence and the deployment of armed forces.
“We emphasize that peaceful protesters should never be subjected to violence or intimidation, whether by military force or civilian units,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa remained in his official residence, protected by layers of iron barriers guarded by the military and police.
The president is under pressure to appoint someone who can unite everyone as prime minister, cede much of his power to parliament, and resign.
The vacuum has also raised fears of a military takeover, especially if the violence continues.