President declares emergency and blocks social media ahead of planned protest

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Dove: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the unprecedented step of declaring a state of emergency followed by a 36-hour island-wide curfew on Saturday amid growing public anger over the shortage of essential goods and rising costs which has seen thousands of people take to the streets in protest.

The unexpected announcement of the curfew on Saturday afternoon is meant to thwart a grassroots protest campaign planned for Sunday calling on the president to step down. The announcement sent people rushing to buy basic necessities, led to the hasty closing of supermarkets and restaurants and a rush to get home among those using public transport.

On Saturday evening, the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Authority also restricted access to social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube etc at the request of the Ministry of Defence. Since the protests were coordinated primarily using these platforms, this effectively disrupted secure communication between citizens who wish to express their anger on the streets.

Densil Silva, a day laborer at a grocery store, was among those rushing to buy bread and vegetables after the sudden announcement of the curfew aired on radio and television. “I heard about the curfew all of a sudden and we had to rush out and lower the shutters. I had to buy a few things to last until Monday. I’m going to lose the day’s earnings because of this,” he said.

Harpo Gooneratne, a well-known restaurateur in Colombo who had to hastily close his establishment and fire staff early on a day when business would have been booming, took to Twitter to express his frustration. “Today I personally saw tourists looking for food to eat as most restaurants had to close with less than three hours notice, without even any delivery options,” he wrote.

A scion of the ruling Rajapaksa family and minister of youth and sports called on the “authorities” to reconsider the decision.

The protests, which began with candlelight vigils in urban townships, have remained apolitical and have grown in number as the public frustrated by a shortage of gas, fuel, daily power outages and rising costs of essential items . Public hospitals are facing a shortage of medicines, while the education sector has also been affected due to power cuts, some lasting more than half a day.

The curfew came on the heels of the president’s enactment of a state of emergency on Thursday night, which gives members of the armed forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain people, functions usually vested in the police.

The emergency was declared hours after a peaceful protest on Thursday night near the president’s private residence in a suburb of the city’s commercial capital, Colombo, turned violent, with angry mobs throwing rocks at police and the army personnel and attempting to break through the barricades to enter the house. . Police fired tear gas and sprayed water to disperse the crowds, marking a turning point after days of peaceful protests that took place across the country with the slogan “GotaGoHome” as their rallying cry.

The president’s office was quick to blame the violence on “organized extremists” trying to replicate the Arab Spring in Sri Lanka, but failed to substantiate those claims. On Friday, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, when asked by reporters about the conspiracy allegation, chose to downplay the accusation and said those involved were political extremists.

The grassroots protest campaign that was scheduled for Sunday began on social media, calling on people to take to the streets at 3 p.m. The campaign has gained momentum in recent days, prompting a crackdown by the government. With a curfew in place, people can be detained for leaving their homes and the move is likely to hamper the success of the campaign against the president and the government.

Sri Lanka is in the grip of its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from British rule in 1948. The country’s foreign exchange reserves fell from $7.5 billion in December 2019 when Rajapaksa took over as president. to less than $2 billion in March 2022, with around $4. trillion dollars of debt to be repaid by the end of 2022. The Sri Lankan rupee has also depreciated sharply against the US dollar since the country’s Central Bank lifted control on the rupee in early March, pushing up the prices of fuel, gas, medicine and other essentials. items in a country heavily dependent on imports.

The government’s response to the growing economic hardship of the people has been nonchalant and failed to capture how much public anger has been building. President Rajapaksa, who addressed the nation in mid-March, made a half-hearted effort to placate the public saying he understood the difficulties they were facing and said the root cause of the current problems was the currency crisis.

Like many others in government, the president blamed the economic downturn on the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a prolonged lockdown and loss of revenue from tourism, tea and remittances. funds of Lankans employed abroad, three of the main countries of the country. sources of foreign revenue, but economic experts point to the government’s mismanagement of the country’s current situation.

A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, WA Wijewardena, a regular columnist in Sri Lankan newspapers, says three major policy mistakes made by Rajapaksa since taking office have led to the current crisis. These include tax relief for income taxpayers and value-added taxpayers, resulting in an irrecoverable loss of tax revenue, followed by an attempt to convert the country’s agriculture to organic farming which turned out to be a miserably executed plan. Third, the government has stubbornly refused to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to overcome the growing crisis in the external sector, even though it has since stated that it is in talks with the IMF on a plan to exit the country of the current crisis. .

There have also been political fallouts from the economic crisis, with two coalition party ministers who were part of the government resigning their portfolios in February after accusing President and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of the President. , to deliberately drive the country’s economy down. Since then, three more ministers of state have resigned, amid growing concern among others in government who are sensing growing public anger against them.

What the government is planning to do with the help of the IMF may be too little, too late for the people of Sri Lanka, who have spent the past few weeks queuing for petrol and fuel. Power cuts have resulted in lost business for many, while the tourism sector which was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is also taking a hit, with many Western countries issuing adverse travel advisories for Sri Lanka, citing social unrest, shortages and system breakdowns.

The 72-year-old president, who was elected largely by the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist population, has seen his popularity decline at a faster rate than any other Sri Lankan leader in the past. A former army officer who took US citizenship and returned to Sri Lanka in 2005 to take up his post as county defense secretary in the government led by his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, is widely credited with leading the military campaign which resulted in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. He came to power by appeasing the Sinhalese majority, which represents about 75% of the country’s 22 million inhabitants, while alienating the Tamil and Muslim minorities. But 2.5 years into his tenure, some of his strongest supporters have become his worst critics.

S. Sunil, who makes a living mowing lawns, was among 6.9 million Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man he trusted to put the country back on track. Today, he can barely make a living, spending hours queuing at the gas station to buy gas to run the lawn mower. “I feel like cutting off my hand for marking the ballot for this man. We haven’t had a worse time in this country,” he said.

Similarly, RA Ranjith, a former Rajapaksa loyalist, is a trishaw driver who has spent countless hours waiting for petrol. “My income has dropped drastically because I have to spend time queuing for gas. We had high hopes for this president, but he turned out to be worse than all the others,” says- he.

By declaring a state of emergency and a curfew to stifle public dissent, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will win no supporters. Residents in several cities have already defied curfews and taken to the streets in protest, with spontaneous acts of resistance seen in many places.

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