COLOMBO: Opposition lawmakers and thousands of people angered by the government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis on Sunday marched to denounce the president’s move to impose a nationwide curfew and state of emergency, as protests over food and fuel shortages swelled.
Police fired tear gas and water canons at hundreds of university students who were trying to break through barricades near the town of Kandy in the tea growing hill region.
Internet users were unable to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media platforms for nearly 15 hours on Sunday after authorities blocked access.
Apparently due to growing criticism, access to social media was later restored. The platforms have been used to organize protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, saying he is responsible for the country’s deepening economic woes.
Sri Lanka is under a nationwide curfew until Monday morning after Rajapaksa assumed emergency powers at midnight Friday. More protests were taking place throughout the country on Sunday as anger over people waiting in long lines for essential foods, fuel and hourslong rotating power cuts boiled over.
Small and large groups of people, some including families with children, gathered along roadsides and outside their homes to vent their fury at Rajapaksa, accusing him of abusing power.
One man held a placard saying, “The power in people is stronger than people in power.”
The emergency declaration by Rajapaksa gives him wide authority to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances or for the maintenance of essential supplies. Under the decree, the president can authorize detentions, seizure of property and search of premises. He can also change or suspend any law except the constitution.
In the capital, opposition lawmakers marched toward Colombo’s main square, shouting slogans and carrying placards that read “Stop Suppression” and “Gota go home.” Gota is a shortened version of the president’s first name.
Armed soldiers and police officers set up barricades on the road leading to the square, which was built to commemorate the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
“This is unconstitutional,” opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told troops who prevented the lawmakers from walking to the square. “You are violating the law. Please think of the people who are suffering. Why are you protecting a government like this? “
Another lawmaker, Nalin Bandara, said: “How long can they rule under emergency? The first instance when the curfew is lifted, people are going to be back on the streets. “
Facebook posts showed crowds of young people shouting anti-government slogans and singing songs.
The European Union urged Sri Lanka’s government to safeguard the “democratic rights of all concerns, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful.”
US Ambassador Julie Chung said “Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully – essential for democratic expression.”
“I am watching the situation closely and hope the coming days bring restraint from all sides, as well as much needed economic stability and relief for those suffering.” she said in a tweet on Saturday.
Sri Lanka faces huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused a lack of basic supplies.
The island nation’s economic woes are blamed on a failure of successive governments to diversify exports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy with the government estimating a loss of $ 14 billion in the last two years. Protesters also point to mismanagement – Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $ 7 billion for this year alone.
The concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family – which also controls the post of prime minister and three other Cabinet seats – also drew the ire of protesters.
President Rajapaksa said last month that he would seek help from the International Monetary Fund and other agencies and countries on deferring loan repayments. Last month, China said it was considering a request for a $ 2.5 billion loan, and India extended a $ 1 billion credit line to Sri Lanka for imports of food, medicines and other essentials.