Dozens arrested in Sri Lanka following protests over economy


Dozens of people were arrested in Sri Lanka follow-ing protests near the president’s home demanding that he resign amid the country’s worst economic crisis in memory, police said Friday.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office blamed “organized extremists” within the group of protesters for violence during Thursday night’s demonstration, where police fired tear gas and a water cannon at thousands of protesters and arrested 54 people. Dozens of other people were also injured.

Nuwan Bopage, an attorney representing some of the suspects, said several of them were being taken for medical examinations for various injuries and would likely appear in court later Friday.

The protesters blame Rajapaksa for long power outages and shortages of essentials. A police curfew that had been implemented in the suburbs of the capital was lifted Friday morning.

Sri Lanka has huge debt obligations and dwin-dling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused the shortages. People wait in long lines for fuel, and power is cut for several hours daily because there’s not enough fuel to operate generating plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.

On Thursday, the crowds demonstrating along the roads leading to Rajapaksa’s private residence on the outskirts of Colombo stoned two army buses that police were using to block the protesters from entering the road leading to the president’s house. They set fire to one of the buses and turned back a fire truck that rushed to douse it.

Senior police spokesman Ajith Rohana told me-dia that 42 police personnel and several other civil-ians were injured in the unrest, and several vehicles belonging to the police and army were torched by protesters. Total damage was estimated to be around $132,000 and the suspects will be charged with damaging public property, Rohana said.

Reporters asked the spokesman about police of-ficers’ alleged manhandling of journalists covering the protests, including the arrest of at least one of them. Rohana said police followed the rules for riot control and took action only after the protest turned violent more than four hours after it started.

Sri Lanka’s economic woes are blamed on suc-cessive governments not diversifying exports and 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 Sri Lanka’s economy, with the government estimat-ing a loss of $14 billion in the last two years.

Sri Lanka also 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.

According to the Central Bank, inflation rose to 17.5% in February from 16.8% a month earlier. Its expected to continue rising because the government has allowed the local currency to float freely.—AP


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