Army denies 'sinister' rumours of crackdown on Sri Lanka protests

Protestors shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on April 9, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI (BLOOMBERG) - Sri Lanka's army denied speculation it is planning to crack down on protesters seeking the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In a statement on Saturday (April 16), it termed as "sinister" allegations that troops are training to assault the demonstrators. Soldiers will step in only if the police call on them for assistance, the army said.

"Troops as everyone witnessed in the past few days, have NOT at all interfered with any of those peaceful protesters or organisations, NOR have they acted against the interests of the State as disciplined members of an organisation which brought peace to this country through immense and invaluable sacrifices," the army said.

Citizens have occupied the sea face opposite Rajapaksa's office for eight straight days, accusing him and his brother, the Prime Minister, of misrule leading to the island's worst economic crisis in decades. The protesters have rejected offers for negotiations and are seeking the immediate resignation of the Rajapaksas.

Rajapaksa - a former military officer and ex-defence secretary credited with crushing a three-decade civil war - has been defiant. In traditional festival greetings last week, he urged "unity and understanding", while Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa reminded citizens of his family's role in ending the war in 2009.

Speculation of a crackdown had escalated in recent days as the nation approaches the anniversary of the 2019 Easter Day bombings, which had killed more than 200 people.

The Rajapaksas swept back to power following the attacks, promising security and stability in a country where the economy had slowed and debt had soared. Opposition leaders are declining to work with Rajapaksa until he relinquishes some of the wide-ranging executive powers he amassed for the President's Office through a constitutional amendment in 2020.

Lack of political stability may imperil talks due to begin in the coming week for a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The army in its statement asked citizens to place "full confidence in the troops as it has been done in the past because current serving troops remain more trained, professionally-qualified and well-suited to take on any security challenge, in this scenario, ONLY if the Police call us to assist them".

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