COLOMBO: Sri Lanka declared a 36-hour nationwide curfew on Saturday and deployed troops backed by sweeping new powers under a state of emergency to quell protests against the president, his relatives and even his most trusted shaman .
The lockdown will come into effect at dusk on Saturday and will be lifted on Monday morning, police said – a period that covers planned mass anti-government protests over worsening fuel, food and medicine shortages.
The order came a day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa invoked a state of emergency following a violent attempted storming of his home, saying it was for the ‘protection of the public order”.
The anger of a crowd in the near-bankrupt country was directed on Saturday at a woman identified as a fortune teller frequently consulted by Rajapaksa in the northern city of Anuradhapura.
Hirunika Premachandra, a human rights activist and former opposition MP, led dozens of women to storm the shrine and residence of the seer Gnana Akka, but armed police stopped them.
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“Why do the police protect a shaman? she asked a senior officer who physically blocked her march, as seen in Facebook live video, verified by AFP as authentic. “Thief, thief, Gota thief,” chanted the crowds after armed security guards arrested them. “Think of the country and let us pass,” pleaded another activist. “#GoHomeRajapaksas” and “#GotaGoHome” have been trending for days on Twitter and Facebook in the country, which is battling severe shortages of essentials, steep price hikes and crippling power cuts in its most downturn. painful since independence from Britain in 1948.
The coronavirus pandemic has torpedoed tourism and remittances, both vital to the economy, and authorities have imposed a broad import ban in a bid to save foreign currency.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and misguided tax cuts.
The curfew and state of emergency in the country of 22 million people came as social media posts called for protests on Sunday. “Don’t be deterred by the tear gas, very soon they will run out of dollars to restock,” said a message encouraging people to protest even as police try to break up the gatherings.
In normal times, the Sri Lankan army can only play a supporting role to the police, but the state of emergency gives them the power to act alone, including to detain civilians.
US Ambassador Julie Chung warned: “Sri Lankans have the right to peaceful protest, which is essential for democratic expression.”
“I am monitoring the situation closely and hope the next few days bring restraint on all sides, along with much needed economic stability and relief for those who are suffering,” she tweeted.
The envoy of the former colonial power Britain expressed similar concerns, while the European Union mission said it “strongly urges the Sri Lankan authorities to protect the democratic rights of all citizens, including the right to freedom of assembly and dissent, which must be peaceful”.
Travel industry experts say the state of emergency could deal another blow to hopes of reviving tourism, as insurance rates typically rise when a country declares a security emergency.
“There are reports of sporadic attacks on the homes of government politicians,” a security official told AFP, adding that a ruling party lawmaker had been hit with eggs during an attack. a public event in the central district of Badulla on Friday.
In the nearby resort town of Nuwara Eliya, protesters shouted anti-Rajapaksa slogans and blocked Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife, Shiranthi, from opening an annual flower show.