Sri Lankans march against government crackdown on protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Thousands of Sri Lankans marched in the capital on Thursday to urge the government to halt its crackdown on protests against an unprecedented economic crisis that has engulfed the Indian Ocean nation for months.

Trade union and civil rights activists, university students and others marched in the streets and then joined a rally in Colombo condemning the government’s moves to intimidate protesters and its failure to ease people’s economic woes.

Ravi Kumudesh, a trade union leader, said the demonstrators wanted to “give a clear message to the government: Stop harassing those who protest over their grievances and give relief to the people.”

He said they would expand their demonstrations if the government “is not ready to listen to the voices of the people.”

Sri Lankans protested for months over the economic crisis that has led to severe shortages of many essential imported items such as medicines, fuel and cooking gas. Thousands stormed the president’s residence in July, forcing then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee and later resign.

The protesters also occupied other key government buildings, including the offices of the president and prime minister.

The country’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has since cracked down on opposition. His first actions as leader included ousting the protesters from the government buildings and dismantling their tents in the middle of the night.

Rights groups say the military has sought to curtail protests through intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary arrests since Wickremesinghe took office in July.

Dozens of protest leaders and activists have been arrested since July. Some have been released. Wickremesinghe has promised leniency for those who committed violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others but promised to punish those who broke laws willfully.

“We demand the government release all prisoners who have been taken into custody during this struggle and stop this suppression,” said Wasantha Samarasinghe, another trade union activist.

The protests dismantled the powerful Rajapaksa family’s grip on politics. Before Rajapaksa resigned, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three other family members quit their Cabinet positions.

Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. He is unpopular because he is supported by lawmakers who are still backed by the Rajapaksa family, which ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. Many accuse Wickremesinghe of protecting the Rajapaksas, who are widely blamed for corruption and misrule that led to the crisis.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the independent National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said protests occur because of the “unjust arrest of protest leaders and the deteriorating living standards of the people.”

He said people are also unhappy that authorities have not “taken action against those responsible for the economic crisis.”

“There has been no accountability process for those who have brought the country to this situation,” he said. “Political leaders who caused the problems are acting as if they have done nothing and are trying to return, and this has caused frustration among the protesters.”

Sri Lanka is effectively bankrupt and has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund on an economic rescue package. The country’s total foreign debt exceeds $51 billion, of which $28 billion has to be repaid by 2027.