Sri Lanka imposes curfew amid protests over price hike

Published April 3, 2022
Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against price hike and fuel crisis in Colombo on Saturday.—AFP
Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against price hike and fuel crisis in Colombo on Saturday.—AFP

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government imposed a weekend curfew on Saturday, even as hundreds of lawyers urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to revoke a state of emergency introduced after the unrest over fuel and other shortages in a deep economic crisis.

The information department said a countrywide curfew would run from 6pm (1230GMT) on Saturday to 6am (0030GMT) on Monday.

President Rajapaksa earlier on Friday introduced a state of emergency, raising fears of a crackdown on protests. Emergency powers in the past have allowed the military to arrest and detain suspects without warrants, but the terms of the current powers are not yet clear.

The island nation of 22 million people is grappling with rolling blackouts for up to 13 hours a day, as the government scrambles to secure foreign exchange to pay for fuel and other essential imports.

“People take to the streets when things are impossible,” 68-year-old Colombo shop owner Nishan Ariyapala told Reuters TV. “When people take to the streets the political leaders of the country must act thoughtfully.”

Rajapaksa said the state of emergency was needed to protect public order and maintain essential supplies and services.

Angered by the shortages of fuel and other essential items, hundreds of protesters clashed with police and the military outside Rajapaksa’s residence, as they called for his ouster and torched several police and army vehicles on Thursday.

Police arrested 53 people and imposed a curfew in and around Colombo on Friday to contain protests. Shops opened and traffic was normal on Saturday, while police remained stationed at some petrol stations.

Failure to understand

“There has been a failure to understand the aspirations of the people and to empathize with the suffering of the people of the country,” said the members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka in their appeal, adding that freedom of speech and peaceful assembly should be respected.

Reacting to the state of emergency, US ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said: “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.

Highlighting the severe shortage of foreign currency, a vessel carrying 5,500 metric tonnes of cooking gas had to leave Sri Lankan waters after Laugfs Gas, the company that ordered it, could not procure $4.9 million from local banks to pay for it.

“People are struggling with an acute shortage of cooking gas, but how can we help them when there are no dollars? We are stuck,” Laugfs Gas Chairman W.H.K. Wegapitiya told Reuters.

The ongoing crisis, considered to be the result of economic mismanagement by successive governments, has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the country’s tourism and remittances.

It also marked a sharp turnaround in political support for Rajapaksa, who had swept to power in 2019 promising stability.

The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and loans from India and China. In the first major food aid to the country since Colombo secured a credit line from New Delhi, Indian traders have started loading 40,000 tonnes of rice.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2022

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