Sri Lanka declares state of emergency as street protests spread

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Colombo (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s president declared a state of emergency on Friday, giving sweeping powers to security forces a day after hundreds of people tried to storm his home in anger over an unprecedented economic crisis.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has invoked strict laws allowing the military to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without trial as protests calling for his ouster have spread across the South Asian nation.

A state of emergency was declared for “the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”, it said in a proclamation.

The nation of 22 million is facing severe shortages of basic necessities, steep price hikes and crippling power cuts in its most painful recession since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

Police reimposed a nighttime curfew on Friday in Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, widening the no-go zone from the previous night.

Earlier in the evening, dozens of rights activists carried handwritten signs and oil lamps in the capital while demonstrating at a busy junction.

“It’s time to leave Rajapaksas,” read a sign. “No more corruption, go home Gota,” said another, referring to the president.

In the mountainous town of Nuwara Eliya, activists blocked the opening of a flower display by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi, police said.

A damaged vehicle lies near the house of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on April 1, 2022 Ishara S. KODIKARA AFP

The southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa have also seen anti-government protests, and similar protests have been reported in northern and central regions. All blocked traffic on major roads.

– ‘Lunatic, go home’ –

Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds demanding his resignation.

People chanted “crazy, crazy, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannons.

The mob turned violent, setting fire to two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler. They also threw bricks at the officers.

At least two protesters were injured. Police said 53 protesters were arrested, but local media said five press photographers were also detained and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it would investigate.

A police car burns on March 31, 2022 during a protest outside the Sri Lankan President's home
A police car burns on March 31, 2022 during a protest outside the Sri Lankan President’s home Ishara S. KODIKARA AFP/File

The police and military presence was reinforced on Friday.

‘The Terrorists’

Two government ministers said a major intelligence failure put the lives of the president and his wife at risk on Thursday.

“Both the president and his wife were at home when the protests were unfolding,” Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters in Colombo, dismissing earlier claims that they were away at the time.

“We had information about a protest, but there was no suggestion that it could turn violent. This is a major intelligence failure.”

Tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka
Tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka Janis LATVELSAFP

Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said “terrorists” were behind the unrest.

Rajapaksa’s office said on Friday that protesters wanted to create an “Arab Spring” – a reference to anti-government protests in response to corruption and economic stagnation that gripped the Middle East more than a decade ago.

One of the president’s brothers, Mahinda, is prime minister while the younger, Basil, is finance minister. His older brother and nephew also hold ministerial positions.

Sri Lanka’s predicament has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has torpedoed tourism and remittances.

Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing.

Record inflation

The latest official data released on Friday showed inflation in Colombo hit 18.7 percent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices soared 30.1%, a record.

Colombo imposed a broad import ban in March 2020 in a bid to save the foreign currency needed to repay nearly $7.0 billion this year to pay off its $51 billion debt.

Diesel shortages since Thursday have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, sparking protests against empty pumps.

Several public hospitals, facing shortages of life-saving drugs, have halted routine surgeries.

The government said it was seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while asking for more loans from India and China.