Sri Lanka’s president declared a state of emergency on Friday after hundreds of its people tried to storm his house in anger over an unprecedented economic crisis. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked the tough laws allowing the military to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without trial as demonstrations calling for his ouster spread across the South Asian nation.
The emergency was declared for the “protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community,” he said in a proclamation. Sri Lanka is facing severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts since its independence from Britain in 1948. Of late, rice and sugar are available at Rs 300 a kg, milk powder at Rs 1600 kg, and school examinations had to be cancelled due to a lack of copies.
Police reimposed a nighttime curfew on Friday in the Western Province, which includes the capital, Colombo. Earlier in the evening, dozens of rights activists carried placards and oil lamps in the capital while demonstrating at a busy intersection. “Time to quit Rajapaksas,” said one placard. “No more corruption, go home Gota,” said another — referring to the president.
On the one hand, activists blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife in the highland town of Nuwara Eliya and on the other hand, the southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa saw anti-government protests. All held up traffic on main roads. People chanted “lunatic, lunatic, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannon. The scenes turned violent, and vehicles were set ablaze including two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler. Also, bricks were thrown at officers.
Sri Lanka’s predicament has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which torpedoed tourism and remittances. Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing. The latest official data released Friday showed inflation in Colombo hit 18.7 per cent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices soared a record 30.1 per cent.
Colombo imposed a broad ban on imports in March 2020 in a bid to save foreign currency needed to repay nearly $7.0 billion this year to service its $51 billion debt. The outrage sparked due to diesel shortages across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests at empty pumps. People are going through a daily 13-hour power cut, the longest ever because it did not have diesel for generators. In addition, state-run hospitals are facing shortages of medicines and a few also stopped routine surgeries.