Colombo: Sri Lanka’s president has declared a state of emergency, giving sweeping powers to security forces a day after hundreds tried to storm his house in anger over an unprecedented economic crisis.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked the tough laws on Friday allowing the military to arrest and imprison suspects for long periods without trial as demonstrations calling for his resignation 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.
The nation of 22 million is facing severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
Police reimposed a nighttime curfew on Friday in the Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, expanding the no-go zone from the previous night.
Earlier 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 the highland town of Nuwara Eliya, activists blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi, police said.
The southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa also saw anti-government protests, and similar demonstrations were reported in the northern and central regions. All held up traffic on main roads.
Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds of people demand he step down.
People chanted “lunatic, lunatic, go home” before police fired tear gas and used water cannons.
The crowd turned violent, setting ablaze two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler. They also threw bricks at officers.
At least two protesters were wounded. Police said 53 protesters were arrested, but local media organisations said five news photographers were also held and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it will investigate
One of the president’s brothers, Mahinda, serves as prime minister while the youngest, Basil, is finance minister. His eldest brother and nephew also hold cabinet positions.
The latest official data released on 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 $7bn this year to service its $51bn debt.
Diesel shortages have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests at empty pumps.
The state electricity monopoly said it was enforcing a daily 13-hour power cut from Thursday – the longest ever – because it did not have diesel for generators.
Several state-run hospitals, facing shortages of life-saving medicines, have stopped routine surgeries.
The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while asking for more loans from India and China.