Police fire tear gas as Sri Lanka protesters defy curfew

Colombo, Sri Lanka – Police in Sri Lanka have fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse student-led protests near the country’s second-biggest city, Kandy, amid growing calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over an economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of fuel, food and other essentials.

Hundreds of students defied a curfew to take part in Sunday’s protest, chanting “Go home, Gota”, referring to the president’s nickname, as they walked out of the University of Peradeniya and headed to the centre of Kandy.

But police stopped them soon after they left the university premises.

“The people have lost faith in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government,” said one student, who wished to remain anonymous over security concerns. “We dispersed because we don’t want any violence and because a lot of female students were with us. But we will be back and then it won’t be so easy to disperse us.”

The Peradeniya rally was the latest display of dissent against Rajapaksa, who declared a state of emergency on Friday and imposed a 36-hour curfew that began at 6pm (12:30 GMT) on Saturday to quell unrest over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

The curfew is to run until 6am (00:30 GMT) on Monday.

But just within the first 12 hours of the curfew, some 664 people had been detained for violating the measure, and despite the crackdown in Peradeniya, scattered protests were reported across the country throughout the day, including in the capital, Colombo.

Authorities also blocked access to social media platforms on Sunday, in moves widely seen as a bid to prevent nationwide protests that had been planned for later in the day. The telecoms regulator said the defence ministry had ordered a block on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, as well as the messaging platforms WhatsApp and Viber in “order to maintain calm”.

But amid opposition to the move, including from Minister of Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa, who is the president’s nephew, the blackout was eased by Sunday afternoon.

The minister had said in a Twitter post that he would “never condone the blocking of social media” and urged “authorities to think more progressively and reconsider this decision”.

NetBlocks, a global monitoring group, said the blackout had last about 16 hours and confirmed in a Twitter post that access to the social media platforms and messaging apps was being restored.

The demands for Rajapaksa’s resignation come as Sri Lanka struggles with what some analysts have called its worst economic emergency since independence from the United Kingdom. Sparked by a foreign exchange crisis, the downturn has left the government unable to pay for imports of fuel, food, medicine and other essentials and resulted in rolling blackouts for up to 10 hours.

Sri Lankans have been staging small, peaceful protests over these economic woes throughout March, but when the government announced a power cut of up to 13 hours on Thursday, hundreds took to the streets near the president’s private residence in Colombo, with some attempting to push through the barricades leading to the building.

Clashes ensued, with protesters setting fire to several military vehicles and police arresting 54 people. All but six have since been released.

On Friday, police also arrested prominent activist Thisara Anurudhdha Bandara, who was the administrator of a popular Facebook group called “Go Home Gota”. He was accused of inciting public unrest, but his lawyer Malaka Palliyaguruge described Bandara’s arrest as an attempt at clamping down on freedom of expression.

“The government can’t arrest people for saying ‘Gota go home,’ and there is no evidence to say violence has been incited,” the lawyer told Al Jazeera.

Bandara was released on bail on Saturday amid a huge outpouring of public support, including from the country’s human rights commission, which launched an investigation into the police’s actions.

Amid the tensions, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) on Saturday said scheduled power cuts on Sunday have been reduced from the planned six hours to one hour and 40 minutes.

The PUCSL said it had received adequate diesel for power generation.

Meanwhile, the energy ministry said it expects to receive 6,000 tonnes of diesel from the Indian Oil Corporation and another 12,000 tonnes of diesel from the Indian government, under a credit facility. The shipments will arrive on Wednesday and Thursday, it said.

Sri Lanka has turned to India and China for financial help and is also seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

But these steps have done little to ease the discontent.

In Colombo on Sunday, dozens of politicians from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) alliance and its supporters gathered near the city’s Independence Square, while supporters of the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) alliance also rallied in a town on the outskirts of the capital.

But police and soldiers armed with rifles blocked the march in central Colombo, even as opposition leader Sajith Premadasa pleaded with them to let protesters enter the square.

“People can’t live,” he said. “This is a peaceful demonstration. Why is there a curfew? Is there a threat to national security? A tsunami? The curfew has been imposed to save the Rajapaksas from public anger.”

Rajapaksa’s brothers hold key positions in his government, including the posts of prime minister, finance minister and agriculture minister.

The SJB’s rally was dispersed, but there were protests throughout Colombo neighbourhoods on Sunday, including in Nugegoda, Havelock Road and Mount Lavinia.

In Nugegoda, dozens of people marched down the street, holding a banner in English that said “Our people deserve a better life”, while on Galle Face Green, protesters held up signs that said: “One family cannot silence an entire nation” and “You have no right to take away our democracy.”

In Mount Lavinia, they chanted “People are suffering, But Gota doesn’t care”, and in Kiribathgoda, people waved the Sri Lankan flag as they stood by the roadside.

In Kurunegala, northeast of Colombo, health workers also staged a brief protest against shortages of medicines, while in Maharagama, on the outskirts of Colombo, protesting crowds said the government was ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.

“Gota has to go home. Let someone who can run the country, do this,” said KD Lalkantha, a former legislator. “There are many serious issues and the government has no answer.”

 

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