Sri Lanka deploys troops to quell protests
President declares emergency as public anger mounts over goods shortages in near-bankrupt country
Demonstrators hold banners and placards during a demonstration against soaring prices and shortages of fuel and other essentials in Colombo on Friday night. (AFP photo)
COLOMBO: Troops armed with sweeping powers were deployed to Sri Lanka on Saturday with the country on the brink of bankruptcy 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 of people tried to storm his home 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.
Troops armed with automatic assault rifles had already been deployed to control crowds at gas stations and elsewhere when the emergency was declared. Others were seen on Saturday.
In normal times, the Sri Lankan army can only play a supporting role to the police, but the state of emergency gives them the power to act alone, including to detain civilians.
The country of 22 million people is grappling with severe shortages of basic necessities, steep price hikes and crippling power cuts in its most painful recession since gaining 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 a bid to save foreign exchange.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement – largely by members of the powerful Rajapaksa clan – years of piled up borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.
The emergency laws preceded planned anti-government protests on Sunday, when social media activists urged people to demonstrate outside their homes.
“Don’t be deterred by the tear gas, they will soon run out of dollars to restock,” said a message encouraging people to protest even as police try to disperse the gatherings.
US Ambassador Julie Chung warned: “Sri Lankans have the right to peaceful protest, which is essential for democratic expression.”
“I’m watching the situation closely and hope the next few days bring restraint on all sides, along with much needed economic stability and relief for those who are hurting,” she said in a tweet.
‘Lunatic, go home’
Travel industry experts say the state of emergency could deal another blow to hopes of reviving tourism, as insurance rates typically rise when a country declares a security emergency.
A police official said authorities were considering a nationwide curfew to prevent an escalation in protests that have blocked traffic in many cities.
“There are reports of sporadic attacks on the homes of government politicians,” a security official told AFP, adding that a ruling party lawmaker had been hit with eggs during an attack. a public event in the central district of Badulla on Friday.
In the nearby resort town of Nuwara Eliya, protesters shouted anti-Rajapaksa slogans and blocked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi, from opening an annual flower show.
A curfew imposed for a second night on Friday was eased at dawn on Saturday.
Thursday night’s unrest outside the president’s private home saw hundreds demanding his resignation.
Protesters chanted “crazy, mad, go home”, before police fired tear gas and used water cannons.
The mob turned violent, setting two military buses, a police jeep and other vehicles on fire, and throwing bricks at the officers.
Police arrested 53 protesters, before 21 of them were released on bail on Friday night, court officials said. Others were still detained but had not yet been charged.
Rajapaksa’s office said on Friday that 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.
About $6.9 billion of Colombo’s debt is due to be repaid this year, but its foreign exchange reserves stood at about $2.3 billion at the end of February.
Earlier this year, the country asked China, one of its main creditors, for help in deferring debt payments, but there has been no official response from Beijing yet.
The Chinese-backed international port of Hambantota was promoted by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent’s elder brother, to boost economic development in his home district, and against the advice of critics who have put warns against heavy borrowing to build it. The site had few users during its first years of operation.
Struggling to repay more than $8 billion in Chinese loans and investments, in 2017 the government sold an 85% stake in the port complex to a Chinese state-owned company under a 99-year lease to raise $1.2 billion.
Work is now nearing completion on the expanded facility which should start attracting more business later this year.
On Saturday, a pedestrian walks past Special Task Force and police guarding a street in Colombo. (AFP photo)