Sri Lanka president's office to reopen after crackdown on protesters

A soldier stands guard outside Sri Lanka's presidential secretariat on July 23, 2022, after protesters were evicted. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's besieged presidential office will reopen on Monday (July 25), police said, days after anti-government demonstrators were flushed out in a military crackdown that triggered international condemnation.

The colonial-era building was occupied earlier this month by protesters angered by the island nation's unprecedented economic crisis.

Soldiers rescued then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his nearby residence before it was overrun by an angry crowd the same day, with the leader eventually fleeing to Singapore and resigning.

Troops armed with batons and automatic weapons cleared the presidential secretariat shortly after midnight Friday on the orders of Mr Rajapaksa's successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

At least 48 people were wounded and nine arrested in the operation, during which security forces tore down tents set up by protesters outside the complex earlier this year.

"The office is ready for reopening from Monday," a police official told AFP on Sunday, adding that forensics experts had visited the office to gather evidence of damage by protesters.

"The siege of the secretariat, which lasted since May 9, has now been lifted."

Western governments, the United Nations and human rights groups have condemned Mr Wickremesinghe for using violence against unarmed protesters who had announced their intention to vacate the site later on Friday.

Mr Wickremesinghe defended the crackdown and said he had told Colombo-based diplomats on Friday that blocking government buildings was unacceptable.

Police spokesman Nihal Talduwa said protesters were free to continue their demonstrations at a designated site near the presidential office.

"They can remain at the official protest site. The government may even open a few more places for demonstrators in the city," Mr Talduwa said Sunday.

The military operation to clear the secretariat building and its immediate surroundings came less than 24 hours after Mr Wickremesinghe was sworn in and just before a new cabinet was appointed.

Mr Wickremesinghe was elected by legislators on Wednesday to replace Mr Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore and resigned after demonstrators chased him from his palace.

Remote video URL

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have also endured months of lengthy blackouts, record inflation and shortages of food, fuel and petrol.

Its government is officially bankrupt, having defaulted on its US$51 billion foreign debt, and is currently in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

The economic crisis which fuelled the protest campaign shows no sign of easing, but the government announced on Sunday it would reopen schools which had remained shut for the better part of a month.

The education ministry said students and teachers will be asked to return to school only for three days each week as transport is still hampered by a national fuel shortage.

Miles-long queues of motorists waiting to fill up were seen across the country Sunday despite the government introducing a rationing system.

New president Wickremesinghe has said he will unveil a fresh budget for the rest of the year in August as previous revenue and expenditure estimates were unrealistic.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.