South Asia

Sri Lanka: President Declares Emergency, Temporarily Blocks Social Media Before Planned Protest

A 36-hour island-wide curfew was suddenly announced on Saturday amidst growing public anger at the shortage of essential goods and rising costs.

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Colombo: Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the unprecedented step of declaring a state of emergency followed by a 36-hour island-wide curfew on Saturday amidst growing public anger at the shortage of essential goods and rising costs that has seen thousands of people take to the streets in protest.

The unexpected curfew announcement on Saturday afternoon is meant to thwart a people’s protest campaign scheduled for Sunday, calling for the president to step down. The announcement sent people rushing to buy essentials, led to the hurried closure of supermarkets and restaurants, and a rush to get home among those using public transport.

On Saturday night, the Telecommunications Authority of Sri Lanka also restricted access to social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube etc. at the defence ministry’s request. Since the protests were coordinated mainly using these platforms, this has effectively stopped secure communication among citizens who want to express their anger on the streets. The restrictions were lifted later in the day.

Densil Silva, a daily-wage earner at a grocery store, was among those rushing to buy bread and vegetables after the sudden curfew announcement which was aired on radio and television. “I heard about the curfew suddenly and we had to rush and put down the shutters. I had to buy a few things to last till Monday. I am going to lose out on a day’s earnings because of this,” he said.

Harpo Gooneratne, a well-known restaurateur in Colombo who had to hurriedly close down his establishment and send the staff off early on a day when business would have been booming, took to Twitter to vent his frustration. “Today I personally witnessed tourists looking for food to eat as most restaurants had to shut down just being given less than three hours’ notice with no delivery options even,” he wrote.

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

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

The curfew came hot on the heels of the president’s promulgation of a state of emergency on Thursday night, which gives sweeping powers to the members of the armed forces to arrest and detain people, which are duties usually vested with 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 crowds pelting stones at the police and army personnel and attempting to break through barricades to enter the house. Police fired tear gas and sprayed water to disperse the crowds, which was a turning point after days of peaceful protests that have been held across the country with the slogan “GotaGoHome” as the rallying cry.

The president’s office was quick to blame the violence on “organised extremists” who are attempting to replicate the Arab Spring in Sri Lanka, but has failed to substantiate these allegations. On Friday, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, when asked by journalists to elaborate on the conspiracy claim, chose to play down the charge and said the people involved were political extremists.

The people’s protest campaign which had been planned for Sunday began on social media, calling on people to take to the streets at 3 pm. The campaign has gathered momentum over the past few days, prompting the clampdown by the government. With a curfew in place, people can be detained for stepping out of their homes and the move is likely to impede the campaign’s success against the president and the government.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from British rule in 1948. The country’s foreign reserves dwindled from $7.5 billion in December 2019 when Rajapaksa took over as president to less than $2 billion by March 2022, with about $4 billion in 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 prices of fuel, gas, medicines and other essential items in a country largely dependent on imports.

The government’s response to people’s growing economic woes has been lackadaisical and has failed to grasp the extent to which public anger has been building up. President Rajapaksa, who addressed the nation in mid-March, made a half-hearted effort to appease the public by saying he understood the difficulties they faced, and said the root cause of current issues is the foreign exchange crisis.

Like many others in the government, the president has blamed the economic downturn on the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an extended lockdown and loss of revenue from tourism, tea and remittances from Lankans employed abroad, three of the country’s primary sources of foreign revenue, But economic experts point the finger at mismanagement by the government for the country’s current plight.

A former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, W.A. Wijewardena, a regular columnist in Sri Lankan newspapers, says three major policy errors by Rajapaksa since taking office have led to the present crisis. These include a tax concession to income taxpayers and value-added taxpayers, causing an unrecoverable loss in tax revenues, followed by an attempt to convert the country’s agriculture to organic farming which turned out to be a dismally executed plan. Thirdly, the government stubbornly refused to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to overcome the mounting external sector crisis, even though it has since said they are in talks with the IMF on a plan to get the country out of the current crisis.

There has also been a political fallout from the economic crisis, with two ministers from coalition parties that were part of the government resigning from their portfolios in February after accusing the president and finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, of deliberately running the country’s economy to the ground. Since then, three other state ministers have resigned, while there is growing disquiet among others in the government who are feeling the growing public wrath against them

What the government plans to do with the assistance of the IMF may be too little, too late for the people of Sri Lanka, who have spent the past few weeks standing in queues to buy gas and fuel. Power cuts have led to loss of business for many, while the tourism sector that was recovering after the COVID-19 pandemic is also taking a beating 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 voted to office largely by the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population, has seen his popularity dwindle at a faster pace than any other Sri Lankan leader in the past. A former army officer who took up US citizenship and returned to Sri Lanka in 2005 to take up office as the county’s defence secretary in the government led by his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, is widely credited with giving leadership to the military campaign that resulted in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. He rode to power by appeasing the Sinhala majority who make up around 75% of the country’s 22 million population, while alienating the Tamil and Muslim minorities. But 2.5 years into his term in office, some of his fiercest supporters have turned into his worst critics.

S. Sunil, who makes a living by mowing lawns, was among the 6.9 million Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man he trusted to put the country on the right track. Today he can barely make a living, spending hours in a queue at the fuel station to buy petrol to operate the grass cutter. “I feel like cutting off my hand for marking the ballot paper in this man’s favour. We have not seen a worse time in this country,” he said.

Similarly, R. A. Ranjith, a one-time Rajapaksa loyalist, is a trishaw driver who has spent countless hours waiting for petrol. “My income has dropped drastically as I have to spend time waiting in queues to get petrol. We had high hopes in this president but he has turned out to be worse than all the others,” he says.

By declaring a state of emergency and a curfew to stifle public dissent, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not win any supporters. People in several cities have already defied the curfew and taken to the streets in protest, with spontaneous acts of resistance seen in many places.