World

Sri Lankan government imposes curfew, blocks social media platforms

Entire cabinet offers to resign as protesters call for the government's ouster after it declared a curfew and a social media blackout.

President declares state of emergency, sparking protest in the capital

People hold placards as they demonstrate against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo, the capital, after the government imposed a curfew following a clash between police and protestors amid the country's economic crisis, on Sunday. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Sri Lanka's sports minister and the president's nephew, Namal Rajapaksa, has resigned from his position amid growing public outrage over the country's economic crisis and shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

The entire Sri Lankan cabinet has also handed over letters to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa offering to resign from their positions due to the country's economic crisis, Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told reporters late Sunday.

Gunawardena said the prime minister and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will take appropriate action on the cabinet's offer to resign.

Government coalition parties are demanding that a caretaker cabinet be appointed to pull the country out of the crisis.

The actions appear to be efforts to pacify the public, who are protesting countrywide to hold the president and the entire Rajapaksa family responsible.

Sri Lanka's political power is concentrated in the family. In addition to brothers being president and prime minister, two other brothers are ministers of finance and irrigation. Namal, the president's nephew, was also a cabinet minister until he resigned.

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard near Colombo's Independence Square as opposition politicians protest on Sunday. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Protests despite curfew

On Sunday, Sri Lankan professionals, students and even mothers with small children defied an emergency decree and curfew to demand the president's resignation.

Police fired tear gas and water canons at hundreds of university students who were trying to break through barricades near the city of Kandy, in the tea-growing region. Near Colombo, students demonstrated and dispersed, while armed soldiers and police stopped opposition lawmakers from marching to the iconic Independence Square.

"This is unconstitutional," opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told the troops who blocked their path. "You are violating the law. Please think of the people who are suffering. Why are you protecting a government like this?"

Sri Lankan opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, left, along with other opposition legislators shout anti-government slogans during a protest in Colombo on Sunday. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, food and medicine, most of which comes from abroad and is paid for in hard currency. The first to disappear from shops was milk powder and cooking gas, followed by a fuel shortage disrupting transport and causing rolling power cuts lasting several hours a day at the end of February.

The extent of the crisis became clear when Sri Lanka couldn't pay for imports of basic supplies because of its huge debt and dwindling foreign reserves. The country's usable foreign reserves are said to be less that $400 million US, according to experts, and it has nearly $7 billion in foreign debt obligations for this year alone.

President Rajapaksa last month said his government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund, and he turned to China and India for loans while he appealed to people to limit the use of fuel and electricity and "extend their support to the country."

As protests grew and calls increased for him to step down, Rajapaksa doubled down and at midnight Friday assumed emergency powers by decree. The government also declared a countrywide curfew until Monday morning.

It did little to quell the anger of thousands, many first-time protesters, who felt fed up and exhausted by the crisis.

"In this country, it is so difficult," said Inoma Fazil, a fashion designer who brought her 18-month-old daughter to a protest in Rajagiriya, a Colombo suburb. "We don't want to leave the country and go, and we want to give our child a good future, but everyone is stealing our money. So we came here for her and the rest of the children."

A couple joined the same rally straight from the hospital with their newborn and were greeted with cheers by the protesters, who sang Sri Lanka's national anthem, and waved flags and placards.

Anger at PM's family

While public resentment is mostly on the Rajapaksa family, anger was also directed at politicians in general and a decades-long system that many feel has betrayed them.

At the Colombo rally, protesters turned back an opposition lawmaker, calling out "no politicians!"

"The main purpose of the curfew is to quell dissent against the government," said Christopher Stephen, a construction businessman who held placards in the main road near his home.

A pedestrian walks past Special Task Force (STF) and police officers standing guard along a street in Colombo on Sunday. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

Stephen said he and his circle of friends and acquaintances had protested every day since early March, and he was excited that more people were joining in.

"What the Rajapaksas have been doing all these years was to divide the people along ethnic and religious lines. But this has united all Sri Lankans — Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers — all want them out," Stephen said, referring to the president and his powerful family.

Aman Ashraff, an advertising professional who was protesting in his neighbourhood, said Sri Lanka has squandered the opportunity to optimize its potential after ending a decades-long civil war in 2009 because of misgovernance.

"This is the turn for the people to rise up and show that they are not going to tolerate the sort of corruption, the sort of greed and the sort of self-centred governance any further," he said.

Social media blackout

On Sunday, authorities blocked access for nearly 15 hours to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media platforms that were used to organize protests.

The emergency declaration by the president gives him wide powers to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances, and for the maintenance of essential supplies. Under the decree, the president can authorize detentions, seizure of property and search of premises. He can also change or suspend any law except the constitution.

The European Union urged Sri Lanka's government to safeguard the "democratic rights of all concerns, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful."

U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung said that "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 said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

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