02/04/2023, 12.59
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Sri Lanka celebrates 75 years of independence by cracking down on protesters

by Melani Manel Perera

The Catholic Church and student associations protest the spending of 200 million rupees on the ceremony. An activist released in recent days denounced police violence. Cardinal Ranjith: "Citizens prisoners of poverty and brutal dictatorship."

Colombo (AsiaNews) - Sri Lanka's 75th independence anniversary celebrations, the first since President Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen to lead the government, were held today at Galle Face Green urban park. However, the local church objected and criticized the exorbitant costs spent on the ceremony, while police violently suppressed demonstrations by activists.

"Our 75th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule falls at an extremely critical and challenging time for the country," Wickremesinghe stressed in his message to the nation. "It is a decisive moment. But it represents an opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and achievements as a nation, but also to correct our mistakes and failures."

Sri Lanka continues to face its worst economic crisis since independence with the exchange rate against the U.S. dollar down from 182 to 360 rupees. 

The Catholic Church said Sri Lankan citizens "have become prisoners of poverty and a brutal dictatorship." The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, issued a statement saying that "politicians have failed to find practical solutions to the crisis. A government that has no money to bring medicine to the country spends 200 million rupees (500 thousand euros) to celebrate independence with great pride."

"We need to reflect on how the country is heading toward misery because of selfish and power-hungry government leaders who have led our country for the past 75 years," the statement continued.

The Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Sri Lanka (Cmrs) staged a brief silent protest this morning in front of the Center for Society and Religion (Csr) where they displayed a banner reading "Where is freedom? Freedom does not belong to politicians but to citizens."

P. Rohan De Silva, director of Csr, said that "after looting everything, after destroying everything, how come only freedom remains? We oppose this ceremony that cost 200 million rupees."

Last night Sri Lankan police, along with the riot unit, attacked protesters who were peacefully protesting in accordance with the principles of satyagraha, the method of political opposition advocated by Gandhi. "In front of the Maradana Elphinstone Theater, we sat on the ground with the children in the afternoon but in the night after 10 p.m. we were severely attacked with water cannons and tear gas. We sustained injuries," several people present at the demonstration told AsiaNews.

Activists were clubbed away, and some young people engaged in satyagraha were chased and beaten. One woman and three men were arrested. They also said one of them is in critical condition and has not been given medical treatment so far, and lawyers have not been allowed to contact them for information. 

"I have seen many videos and they all show police attacking peaceful protesters. Even when the protesters run away, they chase them and attack them. It is clear that the goal is not only to disperse, but to punish. The aggression and brutality is evident. Under Sri Lankan law, this is torture," explained Ambika Sathkunanathan, a human rights activist and one of the former commissioners of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission.

Wasantha Mudalige, president of the Inter-University Student Federation (Iusf), who was released in recent days after 167 days of detention, also leveled charges against the Sri Lankan police, saying the goal was probably to keep them imprisoned longer or kill them. Mudalige was blindfolded with a cloth and taken to the riverbank near the Nawagamuwa Devalaya outside the capital Colombo. He revealed that one of the officers said over the phone, "Sir, we have arrived at the scene. What should we do now?" The activist was released Jan. 31 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and granted bail for three other cases.

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