Opposition politicians and thousands of people angered by the government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis marched to denounce the president’s move to impose a nationwide curfew and state of emergency, as protests over food and fuel shortages swelled.
Police fired tear gas and water canons at hundreds of university students who were trying to break through police barricades near the town of Kandy in the tea-growing hill region.
Internet users were unable to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media platforms for nearly 15 hours on Sunday after authorities blocked access.
Apparently due to growing criticism, access to social media was later restored. The platforms have been used to organise protests calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, saying he is responsible for the country’s deepening economic woes.
Sri Lanka is under a nationwide curfew from Saturday night until Monday morning after Mr Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and assumed emergency powers at midnight on Friday.
More protests were being planned throughout the country on Sunday, as anger over shortages of essential foods, fuel and long power cuts boiled over.
Small and large groups of people, some including families with children, gathered along roadsides and outside their homes to vent their anger at Mr Rajapaksa, accusing him of abusing power.
The emergency declaration by Mr Rajapaksa gives him wide powers to preserve public order, suppress mutiny, riot or civil disturbances or for the maintenance of essential supplies.
Under the emergency, the president can authorise detentions, seizure of property and search of premises. He can also change or suspend any law except the constitution.
In an apparent move to defy the order, the opposition politicians marched toward Colombo’s main square, shouting slogans and carrying placards that read “Stop Suppression” and “Gota go home” (Gota is a shortened version of the president’s first name).
Armed soldiers and police officers set up barricades on the road leading to the square, which was built to commemorate the country’s independence from Britain in 1948.
The European Union urged Sri Lanka’s government to safeguard the “democratic rights of all concerns, including right to free assembly and dissent, which has to be peaceful”.
US Ambassador Julie Chung said: “Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully — essential for democratic expression.
“I am watching the situation closely and hope the coming days bring restraint from all sides, as well as much-needed economic stability and relief for those suffering.”
Sri Lanka faces huge debt obligations and dwindling foreign reserves, and its struggle to pay for imports has caused a lack of basic supplies.
People wait in long queues for gas, and power is cut for several hours daily because there is not enough fuel to operate power plants and dry weather has sapped hydropower capacity.
The island nation’s economic woes have been blamed on a failure of successive governments to diversify exports, instead relying on traditional cash sources like tea, garments and tourism, and on a culture of consuming imported goods.
The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the economy, with the government estimating a loss of 14 billion US dollars (£10.7 billion) in the last two years.
Protesters also point to mismanagement – Sri Lanka has immense foreign debt after borrowing heavily on projects that do not earn money. Its foreign debt repayment obligations are around 7 billion dollars (£5.3 billion) for this year alone.
The crisis has hit people from all walks of life. Middle-class professionals and business people who would not normally take part in street protests have been holding nightly rallies with candles and placards in many parts of the country.
The concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family — who also control the post of prime minister and three other Cabinet seats — has also drawn the ire of protesters.