Sri Lanka’s president has urged people to reject what he called attempts to foment racial and religious disharmony as violence broke out in many parts of the country over the government’s handling of a devastating economic crisis.
Violent street protests have killed eight people this week, and even the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother as prime minister and a curfew have failed to douse public anger.
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The government has ordered troops to shoot at anyone damaging public property or threatening lives.
Sri Lankans have blamed the Rajapaksa clan for the economic meltdown that has left the country with only about $50m in reserves, stalling most imports and leading to massive shortages of fuel, cooking gas, and other essentials.
Protesters set the family’s ancestral home in the south on fire earlier in the week.
“This is the time for all Sri Lankans to join hands as one, to overcome the economic, social & political challenges,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“I urge all #Srilankans to reject the subversive attempts to push you towards racial & religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, toleration & coexistence is vital.”
This is the time for all Sri Lankans to join hands as one, to overcome the economic, social & political challenges.
I urge all #Srilankans to reject the subversive attempts to push you towards racial & religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, toleration & coexistence is vital.
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) May 11, 2022
It was not immediately clear what prompted the president to issue the warning. However, Sri Lanka has a long and bloody history of ethnic tensions.
Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned as prime minister on Monday, were in key government positions when a 26-year civil war ended in 2009 after security forces overcame fighters from the minority Tamil community.
Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country of 22 million, which also has Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities.
A curfew imposed soon after violence broke out on Monday was due to be lifted on Wednesday morning, but it was extended by another 24 hours due to continuing violence.
Even with the curfew imposed and thousands of security forces told to “shoot on sight” to prevent further unrest, a luxury hotel said to belong to a Rajapaksa relative was set ablaze on Tuesday evening.
“It is no longer spontaneous anger, but organised violence,” a senior security official said on condition of anonymity.
“If the situation is not brought under control, there could be total anarchy.”
A police spokesperson said two shooting incidents were reported on Tuesday night, including one in the southern town of Rathgama that wounded four people.
In Weeraketiya, a southern town that is home to the Rajapaksas, police and military patrolled the streets, with shops and businesses shut due to the curfew.
“For the protesters themselves, the fact that the prime minister has resigned does not go far enough,” Al Jazeera’s Colombo reporter Minelle Fernandez said. “They want a clean sweep.”
On Monday, video footage from local media showed the family’s ancestral home ablaze, while multiple attacks on houses and election offices of legislators were also reported.
The unrest in Sri Lanka has spiralled after Monday’s events when government supporters with sticks and clubs attacked demonstrators in Colombo protesting peacefully for weeks over the economic crisis and demanding President Rajapaksa’s resignation.
Mobs then retaliated across the country late into the night, torching dozens of homes of ruling-party politicians and trying to storm the prime minister’s official residence in the capital.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family had to be rescued in a pre-dawn military operation on Tuesday after thousands of angry protesters stormed his residence hours after his resignation as prime minister.
There was no confirmation on their whereabouts, but some protesters gathered outside a well-fortified naval base in Trincomalee on the northeastern coast claiming the Rajapaksa family was being protected there.
The Indian embassy denied social media speculation that “certain political persons and their families have fled to India” and also rejected speculation that India was sending troops into Sri Lanka.
India on Tuesday extended support of $3.5bn to Sri Lanka to help it overcome the crisis, as well as having sent essential items like food and medicine, India’s foreign ministry said.
Sri Lanka has also opened staff-level talks with the International Monetary Fund on a possible bailout after the country ran out of dollars to import even the most essential items.
Echoing calls from the UN rights chief and the European Union, the United States on Tuesday said it was both concerned with the escalating violence and the deployment of the military.
“We stress that peaceful protesters should never be subjected to violence or intimidation, whether that’s on the part of the military force or civilian units,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa remained in his official residence, protected by layers of iron barriers guarded by the military and police.
The president is under pressure to appoint someone who could unite everyone as the prime minister, give much of his power to parliament and resign.
The void has also created fears of a military takeover, especially if violence continues.