Sri Lanka is keeping in place emergency rule orders set out by President Ranil Wickremesinghe while police have arrested at least three organizers of the street protests that forced out his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Parliament on Wednesday voted to approve and keep in place for a month the measures that allow the army and police sweeping powers to question, detain and arrest people.
The government is willing to support non-violent public protests but will not accept “any act of terrorism” that jeopardizes democracy, newly-appointed Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told legislators on Wednesday.
Wickremesinghe, who became president after Rajapaksa was forced to flee the country and resign earlier this month, is viewed as an ally of the former head of state and won the election for the top job with the support of lawmakers from Rajapaksa’s political party.
Wickremesinghe has also called on the army to maintain public order. Security forces, acting on a court’s instruction, cleared a major oceanfront protest site near the presidential secretariat in a pre-dawn operation just a day after Wickremesinghe was sworn in, leading to tense scenes.
The crackdown and emergency laws come amid reports that Rajapaksa is set to return to the island nation shortly. Rajapaksa fled to Singapore soon after protesters swarmed his official residence and offices in Colombo.
“To my knowledge, he is expected to come back,” cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardena told reporters on Tuesday, adding that he would be given the perks due to an ex-president. He said he wasn’t aware of when the former president would return but emphasized Rajapaksa was not in hiding or exile.
Police issued a statement on Wednesday saying they had detained two protest organizers, Kusal Sandaruwan and Weranga Pushpika, according to news reports. A day earlier, Dhanish Ali, a protester who had been part of a brief takeover of the state-run broadcaster, Rupavahini in early July, was picked up as he boarded a flight to Dubai.
Leaders of the protest movement have vowed not to back down and have continued to call for Wickremesinghe’s resignation. Social media posts are doing the rounds calling for fresh demonstrations on Aug. 9 to force him out.
Critics say that the emergency powers that Wickremesinghe has put in place are more for his safety — as public anger over the nation’s economic crisis continues — than for the public good.
“In April 2022, emergency was declared when mass protests were due to be held against the president, for his own personal security rather than for any benefit to the public,” the Center for Policy Alternatives said in a statement, referring to the protests against Rajapaksa. “The incumbent president too appears to have declared a State of Emergency for similar collateral reasons, that are not a threat to national or public security.”
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