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The entire Sri Lankan cabinet, except the president and his brother prime minister, resigned from office on Sunday as the ruling political clan seeks to resolve a growing economic crisis, the social media blackout failing to stop another day of anti-government protests.

The South Asian nation is facing severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials – along with record inflation and crippling power cuts – in its most painful recession since gaining independence from the Great Britain in 1948.

All 26 cabinet ministers except President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, submitted resignation letters in a late-night meeting, the minister said. Education, Dinesh Gunawardena, to journalists.

The move clears the way for the president to appoint a new cabinet on Monday — and some of those who step down could be reappointed.

He came with the country under a state of emergency imposed after a mob tried to storm the president’s home in the capital Colombo, and a nationwide curfew in effect until Monday morning.

Earlier, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka’s main opposition alliance, denounced a social media blackout aimed at suppressing escalating public protests and said it was time for the government to step down.

“President Rajapaksa had better realize that the tide has already turned against his autocratic rule,” SJB MP Harsha de Silva told AFP.

Troops armed with automatic assault rifles moved in to stop a protest by opposition lawmakers and hundreds of their supporters who were trying to march towards the capital’s Independence Square.

The road was barricaded a few hundred meters from the home of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, and the crowd engaged in a tense standoff with security forces for nearly two hours before dispersing peacefully.

Sri Lankan cabinet resigns as protesters anger grow over economic crisis |  Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan army soldiers stand guard near Independence Square in Colombo. Photograph: Dinuka Liyawatte/Reuters

Eran Wickramaratne, another SLB MP, condemned the declaration of a state of emergency and the presence of troops on the streets of the city.

“We cannot allow a military takeover,” he said. “They should know that we are still a democracy.”

Social Media Cut

Internet service providers have been ordered to block access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and several other social media platforms, but the outage has not deterred several small protests elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

Police fired tear gas to disperse university students in the central town of Peradeniya, although protests in other parts of the country ended without incident.

Private media reported that the head of Sri Lanka’s internet regulator resigned after the banning order came into effect.

The blackout was called off later in the day after the country’s Human Rights Commission ruled the Defense Ministry lacked the power to impose censorship.

The streets of Colombo remained largely empty on Sunday except for the opposition protest and long lines of vehicles queuing for fuel.

But police told AFP a man died of electrocution after climbing a high-voltage pylon near Rajapaksa’s home. Residents said he was protesting the power cuts.

Mass protests were planned for Sunday before the social media blackout took effect, but organizers have postponed rallies until the curfew is lifted on Monday.

Internal tears

Escalating protests have led to splits in government, with the president’s nephew Namal Rajapaksa condemning the partial internet blackout.

“I will never tolerate social media blocking,” said Namal, the sports minister.

He was among three members of the Rajapaksa family who subsequently resigned, along with finance minister Basil and elder brother Chamal, who held the agriculture portfolio.

A junior party has also hinted it could leave the ruling coalition within a week.

This decision would not affect the survival of the government, but would threaten its chances of legally extending the country’s state of emergency.

Western diplomats in Colombo expressed concern over the use of emergency laws to stifle democratic dissent and said they were monitoring developments closely.

The influential Sri Lankan bar association has urged the government to rescind the state of emergency, which allows security forces to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without charge.

Solidarity demonstrations took place elsewhere in the world over the weekend, including in the Australian city of Melbourne, which is home to a large Sri Lankan diaspora.

A critical lack of foreign exchange has left Sri Lanka struggling to service its burgeoning $51 billion external debt as the pandemic torpedoes vital income from tourism and remittances.

The crisis has also left the country dependent on imports unable to afford even basic necessities.

Diesel shortages have caused outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, sparking protests over empty pumps, and power utilities have imposed 1pm blackouts to save fuel.

Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.

Sri Lanka is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue plan.

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