The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear grips Sri Lanka after an explosion of violence

Protesters vow to stay in the streets as the president clings to power

Protesters and government supporters clash on May 9 outside the official residence of the prime minister in Colombo. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As hundreds of supporters of Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family stormed through the capital Monday, beating anti-government protesters with crude weapons, Prasad Perera clutched his colleagues’ hands and pleaded for peace.

Perera, a 33-year-old lawyer, helped formed a human chain that stretched across a waterfront clearing, holding back the mob and allowing unarmed protesters to flee.

But the chain couldn’t hold back the more terrifying eruption of violence that came next.

The chaos began when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa summoned his supporters to the capital, seemingly a last-ditch attempt to cling to power. By the end of the day, Rajapaksa had resigned and the country was in turmoil.

Peaceful demonstrators had gathered nightly in Colombo for the past month amid a spiraling economic crisis, calling on the ruling political family to step down. But the assault on the main protest site by Rajapaksa’s supporters triggered a wave of furious retaliation.

Vigilantes poured into the streets, chased and beat government loyalists, erected their own checkpoints on roads, and burned down homes owned by the Rajapaksas and their allies. By Tuesday morning, the former prime minister had reportedly fled to a military base in the country’s northeast, which was soon surrounded by angry citizens.

“People became so furious with the assault on protesters that things went out of hand,” Perera said, recalling how he tried to stop the fighting in downtown Colombo on Monday, only for it to sweep across the country as news of the clashes spread on social media. “People were taking to the streets, taking justice into their hands,” he said. “I’m scared it’ll become anarchy.”

A tense calm largely prevailed early Tuesday, as troops fanned out across the island. Protesters mostly ignored a 24-hour curfew and milled through the streets of the capital, navigating overturned cars and burned buses.

Many returned to central Colombo to call for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the prime minister’s brother. Some clashed with law enforcement officers, who in one instance fired shots to disperse a crowd that had attacked a senior police official.

At least eight people were killed and 200 injured as of Tuesday afternoon, according to police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa and National Hospital in Colombo. The dead included a lawmaker from the ruling party who was caught up Monday in a roadside confrontation between protesters and police. The circumstances of his death remained unclear.

As night fell Tuesday, military spokesman Nilantha Premarathne told The Washington Post that soldiers had been ordered to shoot at “any person looting and causing harm to people.” He cited emerging reports across the country of “vigilantes engaging in illegal activities.”

After nearly 24 hours of silence, the president issued a statement on Twitter urging citizens to “stop violence and revenge against citizens, irrespective of political affiliations.”

“All efforts will be made to restore political stability through consensus, within constitutional mandate & to resolve economic crisis,” he wrote.

But political leaders and analysts voiced worries about one of Asia’s oldest democracies falling under military control if the situation deteriorated further. Although Sri Lanka is no stranger to bouts of mob violence, it has maintained its system of popular rule through decades of political upheaval and civil war.

“I appeal to all our citizens who have carried on a wonderful struggle for justice and democratic governance [to do] so PEACEFULLY, to be aware that saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule,” former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is allied with the opposition, wrote on Twitter.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the former head of a Sri Lankan Defense Ministry think tank, said concerns have been bubbling for months about the prospect of a military takeover, and would only deepen after Monday’s violence.

The president has given no indication he is willing to resign, and last week he declared a state of emergency that gave law enforcement expanded powers. It is unclear whom he could name as prime minister who would be able to effectively unite the country’s divided factions.

Protesters have attacked opposition politicians as well as those aligned with the Rajapaksas, Abeyagoonasekera noted.

“Protesters have put everyone in the same category because they’re seen as part of the problem that allowed this economic situation to brew month after month,” he said. “The danger is still there of moving toward the military option.”

Outraged by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to crush the protest movement, his political opponents called Tuesday for him to face criminal liability. Sajith Premadasa, leader of the opposition United People’s Power, or SJB, hinted that he would be willing to take on a leadership role but would refuse to form a government with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, declaring on Twitter that he would not work with “crisis instigators.”

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, said the upheaval was compounding the country’s economic challenges. Sri Lanka has exhausted its foreign currency reserves and urgently needs to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund and foreign creditors to import fuel, food and medicine, which are all in short supply on the island.

“The political situation has to be resolved before anything can happen,” Saravanamuttu said, noting that Sri Lankan negotiators were scheduled to begin talks with the IMF this week. “You need a credible government. The presidency right now is a poisoned chalice.”

On Tuesday, defiant protesters gathered again on the grassy waterfront in Colombo, where they rebuilt the tent encampment that was destroyed by government supporters. Volunteers helped restore a makeshift library where protesters had donated books. Others cleared piles of ash from the site.

Many said the violence had only hardened their determination.

Roger Warnakula, a disc jockey who has been at the encampment for weeks, said he and other protesters were outnumbered 10 to 1 when government supporters flooded the area, indiscriminately beating people with steel rods and wooden sticks. But as word of the violence spread Monday, even white-collar workers from nearby office buildings rushed into the streets to fight back the mob.

“This is not going to end until Gota goes home,” he said, using a nickname for the president. “He has to resign. We will be here even if they kill us. They tried with their goons. The next round, they might try with the army. But we will not move until he resigns.”

Masih and Shih reported from New Delhi. Piyumi Fonseka in Colombo contributed to this report.