Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday pledged an impartial and transparent inquiry into a police shooting that left one person dead and 13 others injured during protests over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
It was the first shooting by security forces during weeks of protests and reignited widespread demonstrations across the Indian Ocean island nation.
Rajapaksa said in a tweet he was “deeply saddened” over the incident Tuesday in Rambukkana, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of the capital, Colombo, and urged “all citizens to refrain from violence as they protest.”
Public Security Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said Wednesday that police had been patient but needed to use minimal force to stop the protests from escalating into major violence.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa responded by asking Parliament, “Does killing a protester mean the use of minimal force?”
“What this murderous and terrorist government does today is the suppression of the people,” he added.
Fifteen police officers were treated at a hospital for minor injuries after clashes with the protesters on Tuesday. Police said the demonstrators in Rambukkana blocked railway tracks and roads and ignored police warnings to disperse. Police also said protesters threw rocks at them.
Protests expanded to other parts of Sri Lanka on Wednesday as people used vehicles to block key roads as they demonstrated against the shooting as well as rising fuel prices and the government’s failure to resolve the deepening economic problems.
In some areas, protesters burned tires and other objects, blocking roads and creating dense columns of smoke, television channel Sirasa showed.
In Colombo, thousands of bank, port, health and other state employees demonstrated in front of the main railway station, condemning the police shooting and demanding that Rajapaksa resign. They shouted slogans and displayed placards that read: “Bow down to the peoples’ verdict” and “Gota go home.” Gota is a shortened version of Rajapaksa’s first name.
Thousands of protesters also continued to occupy the entrance to the president’s office for a 12th day on Wednesday, blaming him for the economic crisis.
Rajapaksa has resisted calls to resign.
Much of the anger expressed in weeks of growing protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who head an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as Cabinet ministers two weeks ago.
Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, with nearly $7 billion of its total $25 billion in foreign debt due for repayment this year. A severe shortage of foreign exchange means the country lacks money to buy imported goods.
Sri Lankans have endured months of shortages of essentials such as food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine, lining up for hours to buy the limited stocks available.
Fuel prices have risen several times in recent months, resulting in sharp increases in transport costs and prices of other goods. There was another round of increases earlier this week.
Diplomats and U.N. officials voiced concern over the shooting.
U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung and U.N. Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy urged restraint from all sides and called on the authorities to ensure the people’s right to peaceful protest. Chung also called for an independent investigation into Tuesday’s shooting.
Norwegian Ambassador Trine Joranli Eskedal and British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton also called for an independent investigation while urging the right to peaceful protest be safeguarded.
Mahinda Rajapaksa said Tuesday the constitution will be changed to clip presidential powers and empower Parliament. The prime minister said the power shift is a quick step that can be taken to politically stabilize the country and help talks with the International Monetary Fund over an economic recovery plan.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa concentrated power in the presidency after being elected in 2019.
The Rajapaksa brothers are likely to retain their grip on power even if the constitution is amended, since they hold both offices.
Both the president and prime minister have refused to step down, resulting in a political impasse. Opposition parties have rejected the president’s proposal of a unity government but have been unable to put together a majority in Parliament and form a new government.