Dinesh Gunawardena has been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, just hours after soldiers and police cleared an anti-government protest site in Colombo.
Gunawardena, a veteran member of the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Front and an ally of the Rajapaksa political family, took the oath of office on Friday before President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elevated to head of state from his role as prime minister by a vote in parliament on Wednesday.
The two men have been schoolmates and friends since the age of three but lead political parties that are diametrically opposed ideologically.
Wickremesinghe, 73, is a free-market champion and a pro-West politician while Gunawardena, 73, is a staunch Sinhala nationalist who believes in socialism and wants greater state control over the economy.
Sri Lanka’s military raided the main protest camp in Colombo overnight, arresting several protest leaders on President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first day in office.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 22, 2022
The cabinet is scheduled to be sworn in later on Friday. Heavy security was deployed outside the prime minister’s office during the swearing-in ceremony.
“[Gunawardena] was part of the ruling Rajapaska coalition, so no new face in Sri Lankan politics whatsoever,” said Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Colombo.
There has also been no evidence of the president’s promise to bring new faces and to combine the ruling party with the opposition to create some kind of national unity government, she added.
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding their leaders resign over an economic crisis that has left the island nation’s 22 million people short of essential items such as medicine, food and fuel.
The protests forced out former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week. His family has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years but public outrage over the economic crisis forced several family members to leave ministry posts earlier in the crisis.
Protest site evicted
Gunawardena’s appointment came several hours after security forces made several arrests and cleared a protest camp near the presidential palace in Colombo, where demonstrators have gathered for the past 104 days.
Sri Lankan security forces demolished the main anti-government site, evicting activists in a night-time assault that raised international concern.
Troops wielding batons and armed with automatic assault rifles swooped in on protesters blocking the presidential secretariat.
Hundreds of soldiers and police Special Task Force commandos removed the demonstrators’ barricades outside the sea-front building, while the last remaining protesters on the premises – some still on the steps – were evicted.
By morning, the troops – armed with automatic assault rifles – surrounded the complex and the main roads leading to the area remained cordoned off.
Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the decision to use more than 1,000 soldiers and police to clear the protest camp overnight had been made to allow the president’s office to resume its work again.
“Police and security forces acted to clear protesters occupying the Presidential Secretariat, the main gate and the surroundings,” the police said in a statement.
It added that nine people were arrested, including two injured.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the main body representing lawyers in the country, said at least two lawyers were assaulted when they went to the protest site to offer their counsel. In a statement on Friday, it called for a halt to the “unjustified and disproportionate actions” of armed forces against civilians.
Hundreds of activists demonstrated at a nearby designated protest site against the authorities’ actions, demanding Wickremesinghe resign and dissolve parliament to allow for new elections.
Harindra Fonseka, an activist, told Al Jazeera the forced removal of protesters was an act of “state-sponsored terrorism”.
“We are baffled by that decision because we have clearly communicated to the necessary authorities that we will be removing our presence from this space,” he said.
“Unfortunately they had this disproportionate amount of force – state-sponsored terrorism one would say, or the continuous oppression towards the people of this country. We see that the political elites of the country are trying to sustain the establishment, and they have this facade that they want to do something for this country [and] for the citizens, but that is not the case,” he added.
Father Jeevantha Peiris told Al Jazeera that protesters were assaulted in the middle of the night.
“All of a sudden at midnight, when protesters were sleeping and when they had no knowledge, they [security forces] came and they assaulted, tortured media personnel …they had no idea what’s happening,” said the social activist.
“Some of us, the protesters, were cruelly [assaulted] with iron rods, he added, stressing, however, that they “will not give up”.
“This protest movement is very well organised, with multi-ethnic multi-religious and multi-political ideologies … [We will never stop here, we will continue.”
‘Friend of the people’
Wickremesinghe had warned protesters that occupying state buildings was illegal and that they would be evicted unless they left on their own.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy, it is against the law,” he said.
The new president has also declared a state of emergency that gives sweeping powers to armed forces and allows police to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without being charged.
Protesters have accused Wickremesinghe of being a proxy of the former president’s powerful family – a charge he has denied.
“I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas,” he told reporters at the Gangaramaya temple. “I am a friend of the people.”