Opposition lawmakers and people angered by the government's handling of Sri Lanka's worst economic crisis on Sunday marched to denounce the president's move to impose a nationwide curfew and state of emergency, as protests over food and fuel shortages swelled.
Internet users were unable to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media platforms for nearly 15 hours on Sunday after authorities blocked access.
Apparently due to the growing criticism, access to social media was later restored. The platforms have been used to organize protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, saying he is responsible for the country’s deepening economic woes.
Sri Lanka is under a nationwide curfew until Monday morning after Rajapaksa assumed emergency powers at midnight Friday. More protests were taking place throughout the country on Sunday as anger over people waiting in long lines for essential foods, fuel and hourslong rotating power cuts boiled over.
Facebook posts showed crowds of young people shouting anti-government slogans and singing songs.
The emergency declaration by Rajapaksa gives him wide powers to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances or 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.
In the capital, the lawmakers marched toward Colombo's main square, shouting slogans and carrying placards that read “Stop Suppression” and “Gota go home.” Gota is a shortened version of the president's first name.
Armed soldiers and police officers set up barricades on the road leading to the square, which was built to commemorate the country's independence from Britain in 1948.
“This is unconstitutional," opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told troops who prevented the lawmakers from walking to the square. "You are violating the law. Please think of the people who are suffering. Why are you protecting a government like this?”
Another lawmaker, Nalin Bandara, said: “How long can they rule under emergency? The first instance when the curfew is lifted, people are going to be back on the streets."
Sri Lanka faces huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused a lack of basic supplies. People wait in long lines for gas, and power is cut for several hours daily because there’s not enough fuel to operate power plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.
The island nation’s economic woes are blamed on a failure of successive governments to diversify exports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy with the government estimating a loss of $14 billion in the last two years. Protesters also point to mismanagement — Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that don’t earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around $7 billion for this year alone.
The crisis has hit people from all walks of life. Middle class professionals and business people who would normally not take part in street protests have been holding nightly rallies with candles and placards in many parts of the country.