COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka has imposed a nationwide curfew from Saturday night through Monday morning, in addition to the president’s declared state of emergency, in an effort to prevent further demonstrations accusing the government of worsening the economic crisis.
Government Information Chief Mohan Samaranayake said the curfew is imposed under the powers vested in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He drew the ire of protesters who called for his resignation outside his residence on Thursday night, leading to police firing tear gas and arresting dozens of people.
“The curfew is an attempt to silence people,” said Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist who turned up at a protest in the capital, Colombo, which dispersed shortly after the protest. entry into force of the curfew.
“I don’t know why a curfew has been declared. What we need now is not a curfew, we need food, gas, fuel and the freedom to express ourselves,” Fernando said.
Rajapaksa assumed emergency powers at midnight on Friday amid widespread calls for protests across the country on Sunday, as anger over shortages of essential food, fuel and long power cuts spilled over this week.
Sri Lanka faces huge debts and dwindling foreign exchange reserves, and its struggle to pay for its imports has resulted in a lack of basic supplies. People wait in long queues for gas, and electricity is cut for several hours a day because there is not enough fuel to run power stations and dry weather has undermined the hydroelectric capacity.
The island nation’s economic difficulties can be traced back to the failure of successive governments to diversify exports, relying instead on traditional sources of cash like tea, clothing and tourism, and a culture of consuming imported goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the economy, with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion over the past two years. Protesters also decry mismanagement – Sri Lanka has a huge foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t bring in money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations amount to about $7 billion this year alone.
The crisis has affected people from all walks of life. Middle-class professionals and businesspeople who would not normally take part in street protests held nightly rallies with candles and placards in many parts of the country.
On Thursday, angry mobs demonstrated along roads leading to Rajapaksa’s private residence on the outskirts of Colombo and threw stones at two army buses that police were using to block their way. Protesters set fire to one of the buses and drove back a fire engine which rushed to put it out.
Rajapaksa’s office blamed “organized extremists” among the thousands of protesters for the violence. Police fired tear gas and a water cannon and arrested 54 people. Dozens of other people were injured and journalists beaten by the police.
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Senior police spokesman Ajith Rohana said 24 police officers and several other civilians were injured. Total damage was estimated at around $132,000 and the suspects will be charged with damaging public property, Rohana said.
Nuwan Bopage, who is representing some of the suspects, said 27 were released on bail when they appeared in court on Friday evening and the rest were awaiting trial.
Rajapaksa’s declaration of emergency gives him broad powers to preserve public order, suppress mutinies, riots or civil unrest or to maintain essential supplies. In urgent cases, the President may authorize detentions, seizure of property and search of premises. He can also amend or suspend any law except the constitution.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the largest group of lawyers, said the emergency declaration was not the answer to the country’s problems.
“These protests reflect the plight of people seeking to secure for themselves and their families some of the essentials of life,” the lawyers said in a statement, urging Rajapaksa to revoke the state of emergency and ensure the rights of individuals to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
A curfew had already been put in place on the outskirts of Colombo following protests on Thursday but was lifted on Friday morning.
The powerful Rajapaksa family includes not only the president but also his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was credited with a military victory that ended a 25-year civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009. Five other family members are lawmakers, including Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and a nephew, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa.
The immense political influence of the Rajapaska led to fears that the family would control major state functions and independent government institutions would weaken.