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Sri Lankan protesters, driven by economic pain, defy government curfew

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Protests broke out in Sri Lanka’s capital and suburbs on Sunday, as well as at a university in the central city of Kandy, prompted by a crushing economic crisis and despite a state of emergency imposed to prevent them. .

In the middle-class suburb of Rajagiriya, protesters defied a ban on public gatherings, protesting quietly to avoid provoking the security services and holding up signs reading “Enough” and “Go home, Gota”, in reference to the nickname of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some sang the national anthem of Sri Lanka, while others waved the country’s flag.

“Regardless of this emergency they have imposed, we are holding a silent meeting here to show that we know our constitutional rights,” said Uttunga Jayawardana, 31, a logistics company owner, who was taking part in the protest.

Troops and police armed with guns were stationed at checkpoints in the largely empty streets of the capital, Colombo. Yet more than 100 people joined a march by opposition politicians to the house of opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. They were stopped at barricades near Independence Square, a regular gathering place for protesters in the center of the city, where a large demonstration was due to start on Sunday afternoon.

Mr Rajapaksa had declared a 36-hour state of emergency on Saturday in the hope of stemming protests. The government has also blocked access to social media, a move that has sparked a rare show of dissent within the Rajapaksa family, which has stamped its name on the Sri Lankan government. Namal Rajapaksa, minister and nephew of the president, used a virtual private network, or VPN, to note on twitter that the ban was “completely unnecessary”.

Government-imposed restrictions on internet access and public travel followed a Thursday protest involving thousands of people outside Mr Rajapaksa’s residence in suburban Colombo, an initially peaceful protest that turned violent when security forces deployed tear gas and water cannons, according to local media.

Protesters responded by throwing stones and burning buses used by security forces. Two dozen police officers were injured. More than 50 people were taken into custody, including eight journalists, a government spokesman said on Friday.

Shortly after the arrests, some of those detained claimed to have been tortured. In a show of support for the protesters, around 300 lawyers volunteered to represent those who had been detained for free.

Leaflets distributed by protest organizers over the weekend urged people to defy the curfew and demonstrate as planned on Sunday. On Saturday, police allowed some demonstrations, despite the emergency order.

Protesters say they are angry and frustrated with declining living standards in Sri Lanka as the country faces a severe economic crisis, marked by power cuts that have lasted up to 13 hours a day.

The pressure on Mr Rajapaksa and his brothers, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has been building for months as strains on the economy have been compounded by a series of policy mistakes , according to analysts.

Sri Lanka’s economy, which depends on tourism, was hit hard after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels. After Mr Rajapaksa won the November election, he introduced a sweeping tax cut, and the coronavirus pandemic that soon followed put pressure on the currency, the Sri Lankan rupee.

The central bank has decided to peg the rupee to the dollar, rather than continuing to let it float. Analysts say this created a parallel black market and arbitrage opportunities that led to a steep drop in Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt. At the same time, the country’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen to dangerous levels, making it difficult to buy essential imports, including medicine, gas and fuel.

Allies of Mr Rajapaksa, whose family dominated Sri Lankan politics for many years, rebelled. Several political parties in his ruling coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, demanded that he appoint an interim government made up of the 11 parties represented in the legislature.

A coalition member, the Freedom Party of Sri Lanka, told a meeting on Friday that he would abandon the coalition unless he took the step to “alleviate the economic crisis, after which an election must be summoned,” a senior party official said. , Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, said in an interview.

How Mr Rajapaksa responds to public protests in defiance of his emergency order will be closely watched to gauge how much, or how much, he has changed since his family was last in power.

Mr Rajapksa was defense secretary and his brother Mahinda was president during the brutal final stage of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. The Rajapaksas have been widely credited with ending the war. But they have also been blamed by victims backed by the United Nations investigations into war crimes and other abuses.

The family had held power for a decade, until 2015 when they were removed from office. Their final years in government were marked by frequent kidnappings of opponents, often crammed into white vans, never to be seen again.

After the devastating Easter terror attacks, security issues were brought to the forefront of public consciousness, creating an opening in elections for Mr Rajapaksa and his family to return to power.

In Rajagiriya, protesters said what they expected most from Rajapaksas was a certain humility to acknowledge their missteps.

“They have to take to the streets and say, ‘We made some bad decisions, but we hear you, we feel you. Let’s get together and fix this problem. They don’t do that. They are showing a strong hand and suppressing the people,” said Mr. Jayawardana, the protester.

Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, and Emilie Schmall from New Delhi.


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