Troops and armored vehicles were deployed throughout Colombo city and security officials were ordered to shoot on sight anyone suspected of involvement in the violence as anti-government protests continued to rock Sri Lanka .
The crisis turned volatile earlier this week after pro-government supporters began attacking a camp of peaceful protesters protesting against the government and the devastating economic crisis that has engulfed the island of 22 million people.
As images emerged on Wednesday of armored military vehicles in Colombo and military checkpoints being set up across the country, fears grew that the way was being paved for a military takeover.
A nationwide curfew has done nothing to stop protesters from gathering to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is accused of economic mismanagement and corruption that plunged him into his worst financial crisis since the independence.
Security officials confirmed they had been ordered to use “live ammunition” on those involved in violence or vandalism, alleging the outbreaks of violence were a “coordinated” campaign.
Eight people have been killed and more than 200 injured in the ensuing violence across the country since Monday’s attacks by pro-government supporters. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, who resigned as prime minister on Monday amid mounting public pressure, had to be evacuated at dawn on Tuesday from his official residence in Colombo after protesters tried to take d storm the building. He is currently taking refuge in a naval base in the city of Trincomalee, in the northeast of the country.
More than 100 buildings were burned, including the homes of 41 pro-Rajapaksa politicians and a luxury hotel believed to be owned by the Rajapaksa, as well as several buses believed to have been used as transport for pro-Rajapaksa supporters.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation on Monday means the government has been dissolved and there is no cabinet. The opposition refused to form a proposed “unity government” until Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to step down within a specified period and abolish the system of the executive presidency.
The formation of an interim government is an emergency for Sri Lanka, both to prevent the country’s economic situation from worsening further and to continue vital negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, on which the country relies for a financial support and billions in emergency loans.
The central bank chief warned on Wednesday that Sri Lanka’s economy would ‘collapse’ unless a new government is appointed urgently and said he would step down if an interim prime minister is not appointed. not named in days.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday night, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would appoint a new prime minister and cabinet within the week and promised to take steps to abolish the executive presidency, as demanded by the opposition. However, he stopped quitting.
“Once the country is stable under the new government, I will talk to everyone and create an enabling environment for the abolition of the executive presidency,” Rajapaksa said.
Many have expressed concern that the military may attempt to interfere in the power vacuum left by the dissolved parliament. But at a press conference, senior Defense Ministry official Kamal Gunaratne denied allegations of a military coup. “None of our officers has the desire to take power. This has never happened in our country and it’s not easy to do it here,” Gunaratne said.
Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the main opposition SJP party who refused to participate in a government under the Rajapaksas, accused the government of orchestrating mob violence to bring about martial law.
“Under the guise of angry mobs, violence is incited to establish military rule,” he said. “The rule of law must be upheld by the constitution, not with guns. It’s time to empower citizens, not disempower them.
The US State Department has expressed concern over the military deployment in Sri Lanka. “We emphasize that peaceful protesters should never be subjected to violence or intimidation, whether by military force or civilian units,” spokesman Ned Price said.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis called for calm in Sri Lanka and for the authorities “to listen to the aspirations of the people”.
“I offer a special thought to the people of Sri Lanka, especially the young people, who in recent times have made their cry heard in the face of the social and economic challenges and problems of the country”, he declared at the end of his viewers weekly.