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Sri Lanka crackdown overshadows new PM's swearing-in

Fears Of More Clashes As President Picks Rajapaksa Ally Gunawardena For Premier

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Security personnel stand guard near Sri Lanka's presidential secretariat in Colombo after a raid on an anti-government protest camp early on July 22.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Friday appointed a longtime loyalist of the Rajapaksa family as prime minister, hours after an overnight onslaught against protesters in Colombo.

After 1 a.m., hundreds of officers armed with guns and batons converged on a protest camp known as "Gota Go Gama" or "Gota Go Village," named as a jab at now-exiled former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Demonstration organizers said around 50 people were injured as the forces moved in and destroyed tents, including some set up near the presidential secretariat.

The violence overshadowed a morning ceremony at the secretariat, where Dinesh Gunawardena was sworn in as prime minister. Gunawardena is a lawmaker from the ruling party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which serves the Rajapaksas' interests and controls a majority in parliament. He is widely seen as the right-hand man of Gotabaya's most prominent brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president and prime minister.

Only a week ago, demonstrators were celebrating the resignation of Gotabaya, who fled to the Maldives and on to Singapore. Now their movement -- spawned out of frustration over the country's economic meltdown and allegations of rampant corruption -- faces an uncertain future under a president elected with SLPP backing and a prime minister tied to the clan they forced out.

Dinesh Gunawardena, right, is sworn in as Sri Lanka's new prime minister before President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on July 22.   © Reuters

Wickremesinghe has never been regarded as a "military man," unlike Gotabaya -- once a feared defense secretary during the country's brutal civil war. Yet Wickremesinghe appears to be leaning heavily on the armed forces to solidify his government.

Serving as acting president last week, Wickremesinghe imposed a state of emergency and told the military to do whatever it takes to prevent further unrest.

On Thursday, soon after he took the oath as executive president, Wickremesinghe visited the Ministry of Defense for talks with Kamal Gunaratne, the secretary to the ministry and a retired general. He also issued a gazette under the Public Security Act to mobilize all members of the armed forces to "maintain" public order.

But the crackdown in the wee hours of Friday stirred concern in the diplomatic community about how far the authorities may go.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung urged restraint, while British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton said, "We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest."

The European Union in Sri Lanka said in a tweet that "freedom of expression proved essential to the current transition. Hard to see how restricting it severely can help in finding solutions to the current political and economic crisis."

Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the resident coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka, also expressed her concern about the use of force to disperse protesters. Likewise, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka lodged objections as well.

A protester is consoled after the raid on the anti-government camp in Colombo.   © Reuters

On Friday, the presidential secretariat was heavily barricaded, with a large contingent of security forces standing guard.

A demonstration started in the morning at the Colombo Fort Railway Station, protesting against Wickremesinghe and the overnight attack on the camp. There was talk of a march toward the secretariat, raising fears of possible clashes.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cabinet was set to be sworn in the same day, with President Wickremesinghe retaining his portfolio as finance minister. Gunaratne was reappointed to his defense post.

Wickremesinghe and new Prime Minister Gunawardena were classmates at Royal College, Colombo. Gunawardena, born in 1949, went on to become a trade unionist and first entered parliament in 1983. He has held various high-level positions, including leader of the house in parliament.