Sri Lanka: Mob Storms President’s House as Country Runs Out of Food, Gasoline

Demonstrators throw rocks during a clash with riot police as people demonstrate outside Sr
Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP) (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of protesters – reportedly armed with clubs, iron rods, stones, and other rudimentary weapons – attempted to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house in the Mirihana district of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Thursday night, demanding his government address the chronic shortages of fuel, food, medicine, and electricity the country is experiencing.

Sri Lanka has been experiencing nearly ceaseless protests in the past month, prompted by widespread shortages of basic goods such as gasoline, food, and medicine. Hospitals have begun canceling surgeries because of a lack of critical medicine, and power shortages have caused regular blackouts lasting up to 13 hours. Gasoline refueling lines have become so long that outraged citizens have killed one another on them.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is facing the greatest crisis of his term since beginning his presidency in 2019. Rajapaksa is the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president credited with ending Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. The elder Rajapaksa is currently the country’s prime minister, a position he obtained after losing a prolonged battle with predecessor Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2018, who claimed then-President Maithripala Sirisena had ousted him unconstitutionally. Sirisena failed to install Rajapaksa, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president the next year and gave his brother the position.

Violent scenes erupted in front of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential estate late Thursday as hundreds of people attempted to storm the home, according to local news. Police responded to the protest by using tear gas and water cannons, while reports indicate some in the crowd began fighting back with rocks:

Eyewitnesses testifying at the scene accused police of brutality.

“I was beaten like an animal,” one man told News 1st, claiming police officers administered the beating:

Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror reported that the government deployed the army to subdue the crowd. It also reported that the crowd set at least one army bus on fire outside the presidential residence, publishing dramatic videos of the incident:

Ada Derana, another Sri Lankan media outlet, reported that on Thursday, protesters destroyed “two buses, a jeep, a three-wheeler, [and] two motorcycles” belonging to police and the military.

The mob scene occurred during a scheduled blackout in the area. Rajapaksa was reportedly not home.

Rajapaksa’s media office blamed “organized extremists,” without naming any particular organization, for the violence on Thursday, claiming that the protest had initially consisted of peaceful civilians but unidentified criminals wielding “iron rods and clubs” had “provoked” the protesters into trying to storm the presidential residence. The Rajapaksa government has not been uniform in making this claim, however. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara issued a statement Friday denying that any organization had been involved in the incident.

“I don’t think they were extremist elements. It was only an act of sabotage. They have come to stage a protest and started damaging the vehicles and public property. That prompted the police to use tear gas” he reportedly said.

Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, who remains a prominent opposition figure, also condemned the president’s press office and others accusing organized criminals, terrorists, or “racists” of being behind the protest.

“This was not a racist incident. This was not a terrorist incident. Such comments would only exacerbate the already volatile situation,” he said in a statement. “The protests that took place at Jubilee Post were peaceful, however, at Pangiriwatta that situation changed.”

Wickremesinghe blamed the government for allowing Sri Lanka’s entire political system to “collapse” for the ongoing unrest in the country generally.

“This incident can be described as a result of the collapse of the current political structure. The government has failed to solve the problems that are plaguing the citizens of Sri Lanka,” the former prime minister said. “The Opposition has also failed to uphold their responsibility. The government is blaming various groups for the incident, but they must present evidence to support these claims.”

Police arrested 54 people, reportedly including some journalists. The Daily Mirror and Ada Derana both reported that their journalists on the scene were injured in attempting to cover the chaos, publishing photos showing their journalists sporting large bruises on their bodies.

“Ada Derana correspondent in Colombo, Nissanka Werapitiya is currently under medical care at the Colombo National Hospital. He also underwent surgery this afternoon,” the outlet detailed. “Meanwhile, another Ada Derana correspondent Sumedha Sanjeewa, who was obtaining video footage of the protest, was also attacked by the police officers. He was subsequently taken into custody by the Mirihana Police.”

The Daily Mirror did not assign explicit blame regarding their journalists injured in the protests.

Daily Mirror staff photographers Nisal Baduge and Waruna Wanniarachchi who were among those covering the protest, sustained multiple injuries to their heads and arms following being hit by stones and other blunt objects,” the newspaper updated. “Nisal was struck on the head by a stone while Waruna was seriously injured and videos were circulating he was being carried by the bystanders with blood gushing from his head.”

The newspaper did state that its reporters were trapped in a tight crowd by police road blockades that did not allow them to avoid projectiles thrown among the crowd.

The government confirmed that it had inadvertently arrested journalists covering the protests.

“When a mob turn violent, security personnel cannot practically check everyone,” Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella lamented. “Anyone could carry a card and move around. I am not justifying the arrests. It shouldn’t have happened as far as journalists are concerned. Unfortunately, it happened. We will ensure that media personnel’s rights are ensured.”

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