Lanka protesters defy curfew after web ban
For nearly 15 hours on Sunday, users were unable to access social media platforms. Apparently due to growing criticism, access to social media was later restored.
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.
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 organise protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, saying he is responsible for the country’s deepening economic woes.
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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.
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 hours-long rotating power cuts boiled over. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and finance minister Basil Rajapaksa may step down soon as public anger builds against their economic policies, local newspaper Daily Mirror reported.
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President Rajapaksa plans to form an interim government, including members of the current opposition, according to the newspaper. A proposal has been submitted by the ruling coalition to ensure political stability, it added. 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. 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 authorise detentions, seizure of property and search of premises. He can also change or suspend any law except the constitution.
Also Read | Opposition lawmakers in Sri Lanka protest state of emergency
Armed troops had a tense confrontation with a crowd protesting a worsening economic crisis. Troops armed with automatic assault rifles moved to stop a protest by opposition lawmakers and hundreds of their supporters attempting to march to the capital’s Independence Square. The road was barricaded a few hundred metres from the home of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and the crowd engaged in a tense stand-off with forces for nearly two hours before dispersing peacefully.
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.
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 tweeted 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 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. 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.