Sri Lanka imposes curfew amid food, fuel and power shortage protests

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Sri Lanka imposed a countrywide curfew starting Saturday evening until Monday morning, in addition to a state of emergency declared by the president, in an attempt to prevent more protests blaming the government for the worsening economic crisis.

The government’s information head Mohan Samaranayake said that the curfew is being imposed under powers vested with President Gotabaya Raja-paksa. 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 scores of people.

“The curfew is an attempt to shut the people up,” said Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist who headed to a protest in the capital, Colombo, which dispersed early after the curfew came into force.

“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 on mid-night Friday amid widespread calls for protests throughout the country on Sunday, as anger over shortages of essential foods, fuel and long power cuts boiled over this week.

Sri Lanka faces huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused a lack of basic supplies. Peo-ple wait in long lines for gas, and power is cut for several hours daily because there’s not enough fuel to operate power plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.

The island nation’s economic woes date back a failure of successive governments to diversify ex-ports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of con-suming 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 obli-gations are around $7 billion for this year alone.

The crisis has hit people from all walks of life. Middle class professionals and business people who would normally not take part in street protests have been holding nightly rallies with candles and placards in many parts of the country.

On Thursday, angry crowds demonstrated along the roads leading to Rajapaksa’s private residence on the outskirts of Colombo and stoned two army buses that police were using to block their path. The pro-testers set fire to one of the buses and turned back a fire truck that rushed to douse it.

Rajapaksa’s office blamed “organized extremists” within 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 some journalists beaten by police.

Senior police spokesperson Ajith Rohana said that 24 police personnel and several other civilians were injured. Total damage was estimated to be around $132,000 and the suspects will be charged with damaging public property, Rohana said.

Nuwan Bopage, who represents some of the suspects, said 27 were released on bail when they appeared in court on Friday night and the others were waiting to be processed.

The emergency declaration by Rajapaksa gives him wide powers to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances or for the mainte-nance of essential supplies. Under the emergency, the president can authorize detentions, seizure of prop-erty and search of premises. He can also change or suspend any law except the constitution. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the largest lawyers’ group, said the emergency declaration was not the answer to the country’s problems.—AP

 

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