Sri Lankan leader declares a state of emergency amid protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan strongman president Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency for the second time in just over a month as his government faces extensive and ongoing protests for a deepening economic crisis.

The announcement came late Friday after a general strike closed shops and businesses across the South Asian island nation. Protesters outside the Parliament building in Colombo, the capital, blocked exits, trapping lawmakers inside for hours as police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters.

the protesters are asking for his resignation of Mr. Rajapaksa and his older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister, who have been accused of mismanaging the economy and sending Sri Lanka into bankruptcy. According to the finance minister, the country’s usable foreign exchange reserves plummeted to below $ 50 million. Food prices are rising, hospitals have run out of essential medicines, and fuel shortages have led to long power outages.

Anger was palpable on Friday outside Parliament, where lawmakers, instead of accepting a no-confidence motion filed by the opposition, had been busy for days for a routine vote on a vice-president position. The person who previously held the post was re-elected after his resignation, only to resign again days later, underlining the dysfunction that protesters say they are tired of.

For days, the news had suggested that the president might offer protesters a concession calling for the resignation of the prime minister. Those reports escalated on Friday night, but the prime minister’s office denied that he had been asked to step down or that he had any plans to do so.

Instead the president, a former defense secretary who was accused of overseeing the atrocities during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, he declared a state of emergency. The measure gives security forces broad powers to arrest and detain people and authorizes the president to deploy military and police to quell protests.

A government spokesman, Mohan Samaranayake, said in a statement Saturday that the protests had “posed a serious threat to the security of public life” and had “aggravated the economic crisis”. He called the declaration on the state of emergency “a short-term measure”.

In early April, the president declared a state of emergency on the eve of planned mass protests across the country. He also imposed a curfew on the movements and arrested hundreds of protesters. But Mr. Rajapaksa lifted the emergency days later.

The Sri Lankan Bar Association has invited the President to revoke the last state of emergency and “to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people” were “protected and not violated by the state or its agents”. The American Ambassador, Julie Chung, wrote on Twitter that the “voices of peaceful citizens must be heard”.

Protests continued Saturday in Colombo and elsewhere. “We are not deterred by these measures they are taking,” said Wasantha Mudalige, a 27-year-old university student who was demonstrating in the capital.

The protesters were largely disciplined and peaceful. They mobilized across the country and supported an Occupy Wall Street-style tent city outside the Colombo presidential office for nearly a month, despite the summer heat and monsoon rains. At least one protester died during police shooting during the protests.

The president, prime minister and other members of the Rajapaksa family, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for years and they hold various high-level government posts, are the main target of protesters’ anger. Protesters believe family and other members of Sri Lanka’s political elite have failed in a country that is still trying to do so get out of the shadow of the civil war which ended more than a decade ago.

“People are on the streets asking the Rajapaksa family to come home,” said Mudalige, the protester. “More people than the numbers who voted to elect this president are asking for him to step down. He has effectively lost his mandate. “

The economic crisis has been attributed to a shortage of foreign exchange, as well as deep tax cuts the president introduced after taking office in 2019.

Sri Lanka soon began to struggle to pay off its foreign debts. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourist-dependent country hard, depriving it of crucial money. Last month, the government outstanding payment on his international debt. It ran on credit lines from India for essential imports, including fuel, food and medicine.

Last month, a delegation from Sri Lanka met with representatives of the International Monetary Fund to discuss financial relief measures and debt restructuring. Although the fund has promised support, officials and analysts say it will likely take months for tangible assistance to arrive.

Mujib Mashal contributed reports from Dubai.