Following an unprecedented economic crisis and a day after hundreds tried to storm his house in anger, Sri Lanka’s president declared a state of emergency Friday giving sweeping powers to security forces.
As demonstrations calling for the president’s ouster spread across the South Asian nation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked the tough laws allowing the military to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without trial.
The president said in a proclamation that “The emergency was declared for “protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.”
In its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948, the island nation is facing severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts.
Police reimposed a nighttime curfew Friday in the Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, expanding the no-go zone from the previous night. Early in the evening, dozens of rights activists carried handwritten 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.
In another incident, in the highland town of Nuwara Eliya, activists blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi.
Anti-government protests were also seen taking place in the southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa, while similar demonstrations were reported in the northern and central regions.
Following Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home, at least two protesters were wounded. Police said 53 protesters were arrested. According to local media organizations, five news photographers were also detained and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it will investigate.
The police and military presence was beefed up Friday.
Sri Lanka’s present condition has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which torpedoed tourism and remittances. Many economists also say the crisis has been aggravated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing.
The latest official data released Friday showed inflation in Colombo hit 18.7 percent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices soared a record 30.1 percent.
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.
Diesel shortages have prompted the state electricity monopoly to be enforcing a daily 13-hour power cut since Thursday — the longest ever — because it did not have diesel for generators.
Several state-run hospitals, facing shortages of life-saving medicines, have also stopped routine surgeries.