Sri Lanka has been experiencing almost constant protests over the last month, spurred by the widespread shortages of essential items such as fuel, food, and medical supplies. Hospitals have started canceling procedures due to shortages of crucial medicines, while power shortfalls have led to frequent blackouts lasting as long as 13 hours. Lines for fueling up on gas have become so long that angry citizens have even been killing each other while waiting in these lines.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is facing the biggest crisis of his presidency since assuming his role in 2019. Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the former president who is credited for ending the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009. The older Rajapaksa is currently Sri Lanka's prime minister, a post that he was awarded following a long-running battle with his predecessor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the year 2018, who claimed that then-President Maithripala Sirisena had ousted him unconstitutionally. Sirisena did not succeed in establishing Rajapaksa as prime minister; however, Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in the following year, and his brother was appointed to the position.
A scene of violence erupted in the vicinity of Rajapaksa's presidential estate late Thursday evening, as hundreds of protesters attempted to take over the residence, according to local news sources. Police responded with tear gas and cannons, and reports suggest that some members of the crowd started fighting back with rocks.
Witnesses on the scene have accused officers of using excessive force. “I was beaten like an animal,” one man told News 1st, claiming police officers were responsible for the beating.
The Sri Lankan Daily Mirror reported that the government sent the army in to control the crowd. It also claimed that protesters set at least one military bus on fire outside the presidential residence. The newspaper also published video footage of the event. Ada Derana, another Sri Lankan media outlet, claimed that protesters took down “two buses, a jeep, a three-wheeler, [and] two motorcycles” belonging to the military and police on Thursday. The mob incident occurred during a scheduled blackout event in the region. Rajapaksa was not believed to be home.
Rajapaksa’s media office claimed that “organized extremists,” without naming any specific group, were to blame for Thursday’s violence. Representatives claimed that the initial protest comprised peaceful citizens, but unidentified criminals armed with “iron rods and clubs” were the ones who “provoked” the protesters to lay siege to the presidential residence. Rajapaksa’s administration hasn't been consistent in its assertions, however. The Minister for Public Security, Sarath Weerasekara, released an announcement on Friday, denying any group was responsible for the incident. “I don't think they were extremist elements. It was only an act of sabotage. They have come to stage a protest and started damaging vehicles and public property. That prompted the police to use tear gas.”
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister and still a prominent opposition figure, was also critical of the president's media office and others who accused terrorists, organized criminals, and “racists” of being behind the protest. “This was not a racist incident. This was not a terrorist incident. Such comments would only exacerbate the already volatile situation,” the statement reads. “The protests that took place at Jubilee Post were peaceful; however, at Pangiriwatta that situation changed.”
Wickremesinghe claimed that the government was responsible for permitting Sri Lanka's entire government to “collapse” during the ongoing tensions in the country overall. “This incident can be described as a result of the collapse of the current political structure. The government has failed to solve the problems that are plaguing the citizens of Sri Lanka,” the former prime minister said. “The Opposition has also failed to uphold their responsibility. The government is blaming various groups for the incident, but they must present evidence to support these claims.”
Police detained 54 people, including journalists. According to the Daily Mirror and Ada Derana, their reporters on the scene suffered injuries as they tried to cover the chaos. They published pictures showing their journalists with large bumps and bruises.
“Ada Derana correspondent in Colombo, Nissanka Werapitiya, is currently under medical care at the Colombo National Hospital. He also underwent surgery this afternoon,” the report said. “Meanwhile, another Ada Derana correspondent, Sumedha Sanjeewa, who was obtaining video footage of the protest, was also attacked by the police officers. He was subsequently taken into custody by the Mirihana Police.”
The Daily Mirror did not assign any specific blame for their journalists being injured in the protests. “Daily Mirror staff photographers Nisal Baduge and Waruna Wanniarachchi, who were among the journalists covering the protests, suffered multiple head [and arm] injuries… after being struck by stones and other sharp items,” the newspaper explained in an update. “Nisal was hit on the head with the stone, while Waruna was severely injured. As videos circulated showing him being carried by spectators with blood pouring out of the top of his head.”
The newspaper did mention that its journalists were trapped in a crowded area by road blockades erected by the police, which did not permit them to stay clear of projectiles thrown into the crowd.
The government confirmed that it had inadvertently arrested some of the journalists covering the protests.
“When a mob turns violent, security personnel cannot practically check everyone,” Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella moaned. “Anyone could carry a card and move around. I am not justifying the arrests. It shouldn't have happened as far as journalists are concerned. Unfortunately, it happened. We will ensure that media personnel's rights are ensured.”