Sri Lankan leader declares state of emergency amid protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s president on Friday declared a state of emergency giving him broad authority amid widespread public protests demanding his resignation following the country’s worst economic crisis in recent memory.

The decree issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invokes sections of the Public Security Ordinance which allow him to make regulations in the interest of public security, preservation of public order, suppression of mutinies, riots or civil unrest, or for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Under the emergency regulations, Rajapaksa can authorize detentions, take possession of any property and search any premises. It can also modify or suspend any law.

Police used tear gas and water cannon twice on Friday against protesters near parliament criticizing lawmakers for failing to topple the president and his government, which they say are responsible for the economic crisis. Protesters are angry that lawmakers elected a government-backed Deputy Speaker of Parliament with a large majority as protesters say they should reject Rajapaksa’s government.

At first, police fired tear gas at a student-led protest that began on Thursday after the election of the vice president in what was seen as a key victory for the ruling coalition, which was seeing defections and uncertain of a clear majority in Parliament.

In addition, the police dispersed other demonstrators with tear gas on Friday evening also around the Parliament.

Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy after announcing it was suspending foreign loan repayments and its usable foreign exchange reserves fell below $50 million. It has $7 billion in foreign loan repayments this year out of $25 billion to repay by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51 billion.

Rajapaksa’s announcement comes as protesters occupy the entrance to the president’s office for a 28th day, demanding that Rajapaksa, his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the rest of the powerful ruling family step down.

Similar protests have spread to other places, with people setting up camps opposite the prime minister’s residence and other towns across the country.

Leaders of the protest in front of the president’s office said they would continue their protests despite the declaration of an emergency.

“The crackdown is not the response to these protests but heeding the demands of the people, and these are ‘the president leaves immediately, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa leaves immediately and the government goes home,'” the official said. protest leader Lahiru Weerasekara to reporters.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the country’s lawyers’ group, demanded that the president explain the reasons for the emergency declaration and called for it to be revoked. The association also asked the authorities to guarantee freedom of expression, publication and peaceful assembly of the population.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Hard currency shortages have also hampered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which jumped to 18.7% in March.

As oil prices soar during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running low. Authorities have implemented power cuts across the country extending up to 13 hours a day because they cannot supply enough fuel to power stations.

Shops, offices and schools were also closed across the country on Friday, transport came to a virtual standstill and widespread protests took place against the government.

Opposition lawmakers raised objections in parliament over the use of tear gas against students, after which the president adjourned the session until May 17. The students withdrew from the site of the protest, warning that they would return when Parliament resumed and demanding that Rajapaksa resign before then.

Some other protesters blocked the exits through which lawmakers tried to leave parliament and questioned them about what they had achieved for the people in numerous meetings.

Factories, banks and government offices were also closed on Friday, with workers protesting outside them. Black flags were displayed in some stores in response to a call from unions and other organizations, and many protesters wore black T-shirts.

Protesters also hung underwear near a road leading to Parliament and chanted, “This is all we have left!”

“People have been telling this government to go home for a month,” student leader Wasantha Mudalige said during the protest in parliament. “They endured great problems which led to this request.”

“There are discussions going on inside this den of thieves called Parliament, and none of the people’s issues are discussed there. So the decision of the people is that Parliament does not reflect their feelings,” he added.

So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, although three Rajapaksas out of five lawmakers resigned from their cabinet posts in mid-April.

Sri Lanka has held talks with the International Monetary Fund to secure an immediate funding facility as well as a long-term bailout, but has been told its progress will depend on debt restructuring negotiations with creditors .

Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get started.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa also declared a state of emergency and blocked social media when protests began in early April. But he withdrew them under local and international pressure.

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