COLOMBO: Troops armed with sweeping powers were deployed in Sri Lanka Saturday with the near-bankrupt country on edge after the president declared a state of emergency to quell escalating protests against him. Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked special powers on Friday night, a day after hundreds tried to storm his house in anger over unprecedented shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
The state of emergency was for the “protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”, Rajapaksa said in a proclamation. Soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles had already been deployed for crowd control at fuel stations and elsewhere when the emergency was declared. More were seen on Saturday. In normal times, Sri Lanka’s military can only play a supporting role to police, but the state of emergency gives them authority to act alone, including to detain civilians.
The South Asian nation of 22 million people is battling severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948. The coronavirus pandemic has torpedoed tourism and remittances, both vital to the economy, and authorities have imposed a broad import ban in an attempt to save foreign currency.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing, and ill-advised tax cuts. The emergency laws came ahead of planned anti-government protests on Sunday, when activists on social media have urged people to demonstrate outside their homes.
“Do not be deterred by tear gas, very soon they will run out of dollars to re-stock,” said one post encouraging people to demonstrate even if police attempt to break up gatherings. US ambassador Julie Chung warned: “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.
‘Lunatic, go home’
Travel trade specialists say the state of emergency could be a new blow to hopes of a tourism revival as insurance rates usually rise when a country declares a security emergency. A police official said authorities were considering a nationwide curfew to prevent an escalation of protests that have blocked traffic in many towns. “There are reports of sporadic attacks on the homes of government politicians,” a security official told AFP, adding that a ruling party legislator was hit with eggs at a public event in the central district of Badulla on Friday.
In the nearby hill resort of Nuwara Eliya, protesters shouted anti-Rajapaksa slogans and blocked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife Shiranthi from opening an annual flower exhibition. A curfew imposed for a second night Friday was relaxed at dawn Saturday. Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds of people demand he step down. Protesters chanted “lunatic, lunatic, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannon. The crowd turned violent, setting ablaze two military buses, a police jeep and other vehicles, and threw bricks at officers.
Police arrested 53 protesters, before 21 of them were released on bail Friday night, court officials said. Others were still being detained but had yet to be charged. Rajapaksa’s office said Friday that the 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. – AFP